HL Deb 29 July 1907 vol 179 cc395-402

My Lords, I beg to move that during the remainder of the present session all Bills which come from the House of Commons shall be printed in such manner as to show what parts, if any, have been passed by means of the closure. Under present circumstances I think the motives for this Motion will be apparent to all, and therefore it will not be necessary for me to detain your Lordships with any lengthy remarks. It is quite plain that your Lordships are going to be called upon at very short notice to consider a number of important measures. It is therefore most desirable that of the short time which is allotted to us we should waste as little as possible in arriving at the meaning and intention of those measures, and therefore it is desirable that we should be in a position to ascertain how much of the measures has been discussed in the other House. The use of the closure seems to increase every day. Thirty of the forty-two clauses of the Territorial Forces Bill were passed in the House of Commons under the closure. But that measure was at least considered in Committee of the Whole House, and not in Grand Committee, which has now in respect of most Bills been substituted for Committee of the Whole House. There is no official record whatever of what takes place in Grand Committee, and as it is most important that we should know what happens there I have put down this Motion, which provides, as far as I can see, the only means of ascertaining that information. I would point out that the Motion refers both to procedure in Committee and procedure on other stages of Bills.

Moved, "That during the remainder of the present session all Bills which come from the House of Commons shall be printed in such manner as to show what parts, if any, have been passed by means of the closure." —(The Earl of Camperdown.)


My Lords, the wording of the noble Earl's Motion is somewhat vague. It is not quite clear whether the noble Earl intends only to apply his Motion to what is known as the guillotine, or closure by compartments, or whether he desires to have a distinct record kept of every case in which the closure had been applied to a clause, however long the discussion might have been.


I said every case in which the closure had been applied, as well as the other.


So far as the Whole House is concerned that, of course, could be done, but I think the result might be of a somewhat misleading character. It would be simple so far as regards the closuring of a whole clause, but the fact that the closure had been applied at some time or another during the debate could not justify, I think, this House in drawing the inference that the matter had not been sufficiently discussed, and it would really be necessary for a noble Lord, in order to inform himself properly on the subject, to look at the debate and see what length of time had been occupied and whether the particular point had been adequately discussed or not. Of course, we should all naturally agree that it is desirable that the House should be fully informed as to the degree of discussion that has taken place elsewhere; but the question of how that is to be done by a sort of labour saving appliance such as that of the noble Earl is a very different matter. There is no closure by compartment in Grand Committee, and, therefore, it would be necessary, I suppose, in order to gain a really true idea of what had happened, after stating that the closure had been applied, also to state after what degree of discussion it had been applied: That is really an entirely impossible task for the officers of the House to undertake. I feel some sympathy, I confess, with the object of the noble Earl's motion, but it appears to me of so unpractical a character that it is quite impossible to assent to what he desires without, in fact, misleading the House to an extent which, I am sure, the noble Earl himself would regret.


Putting aside the question of Grand Committee, and dealing only with the closure when enforced in the House of Commons, I suggest that it would be very easy to print the Bill with two lines where the closure was enforced after discussion, and with one line where particular clauses were closured by compartments.


My Lords, I hope His Majesty's Government will make an effort to supply at any rate some information upon this very important point. The noble Earl the Lord President said with great frankness that in his opinion it is very desirable that this House should know the extent to which Bills had been discussed in the other House. Surely, it cannot be altogether beyond the power of those who have charge of the preparation of these documents to devise some means of showing us, at any rate to some extent, whether a Bill has been debated or not. I imagine that in some cases certain parts of a Bill are not discussed owing to the application of the closure in the House, and in other cases they are not discussed even in the Committee room upstairs. Is it not possible to show, by a marginal indication of some kind, whether a particular clause has escaped discussion either in the House or in the Committee, or in both? I do not want to press the subject unduly this evening, but I think, if the noble Earl would instruct whoever advises him with regard to this matter to confer with the Earl of Camperdown, it ought to be possible to discover some means of giving the House that information which the Lord President himself admits should not be withheld from the House.


My Lords, I confess that I think it would be very far from easy to give the information suggested by the noble Lord opposite. It is essential that any information given to the House by its officers should be perfectly accurate, and, especially as regards what passes in Grand Committee, that might be extremely difficult. But I have another objection to the Motion. I doubt whether it is wise that one House of Parliament should criticise or interfere with the mode in which the other House conducts its business. I think it is a matter altogether without precedent. I do not recollect that it has ever been done before, and I doubt whether it would be an advisable thing for this House to initiate an example that might be followed. The sound constitutional view of the subject is, I believe, that each House should be accountable for the manner in which it conducts its business, and I venture to think your Lordships would be entering upon a rather difficult course if you were to adopt the Motion of the noble Earl.


My Lords, I venture to think that the noble Marquess who has just sat down hardly appreciates what we are asking for. The proposal is not to discuss or criticise the action taken in the other House. What we are anxious to know is whether there were certain parts of certain Bills that had received no discussion at all in another place. I think it is straining the matter very far indeed to suggest that, in asking for that information, we are trenching on the prerogatives of another place.


My Lords, in a case where the closure had been applied after five or six hours discussion it would appear in the print asked for that there had been a closure; but the matter might have been fully discussed. The guillotine might be applied in Committee, and yet ample discussion allowed on Report. I would suggest that the Motion should be limited so as to show where there had been no discussion at all.


My Lords, I hope your Lordships' will insist on the Motion. The noble Marquess opposite spoke of this being an unprecedented action. The situation, so far as I know, is absolutely unprecedented. It is no exaggeration to say that freedom of speech has, to a great extent, been suppressed in another place, and it is important that we should have actually placed before us, in black and white, information as to what portions of Bills have not received any discussion at all.


My Lords, I would remind noble Lords opposite that they have ready to hand a very fair and full account of all that takes place in the other House in Hansard, and an idea as to the amount of discussion which any proposal had received could be better obtained from Hansard than in the way suggested by the noble Earl. We all know that a large number of Members in the other House who are opposed to a Bill waste time by discussing very immaterial points at great length instead of concentrating their attention on matters that are of importance. It is therefore largely their own fault if they do not have an opportunity of discussing the more important points.


My Lords, in referring to the means we now have of estimating the discussions in the other House the noble Lord has forgotten that there is no report as to what takes place in Grand Committee. I think it is very necessary that we should know whether there are certain portions of Bills which have received no discussion at all.


My Lords, I think it is quite clear that by the acceptance of the Motion you would be converting impartial official Papers into Party pamphlets. It is quite obvious that the information sought is wanted for the sake of basing an argument. I remember that when Mr. Gladstone forced his Home Rule Bill through the other House there was no more effective pamphlet issued than the one showing in red ink the portions of that measure which were passed without consideration. There are plenty of organisations prepared to furnish you with the information desired without interfering with the dignity or impartiality of your official documents. In the first place, if the point is of any importance all your Lordships know it; secondly, if you do not know it there are plenty of people who will take care to tell you. I am quite certain that the Motion, if carried, would be the occasion of strife between the two Houses. There are already plenty of opportunities for strife between the two Houses; and there are likely to be more in a short time; and it would be unwise for your Lordships to begin the strife by turning your official documents into Party pamphlets.


I have no desire to flaunt my Motion as a Party thing in the face of the House of Commons. I put it down solely with a view to obtaining information, and I fail to understand why the other House should feel annoyed by any step your Lordships might take in order to obtain information for yourselves. We are not in any way dealing with the procedure of the House of Commons. The noble Lord the First Lord of the Admiralty said that the Unionists in the House of Commons wasted a great deal of time, and that if they acted otherwise things would be different. But that has nothing whatever to do with this Motion. What I want is, if possible, to obtain information for this House with regard to points which have been passed over, either without any consideration whatever, or with very insufficient consideration; and Grand Committee is the stage in which it appears to me that the consideration has most undoubtedly been the smallest. There is no closure by compartments, so far as I have been able to ascertain, in Grand Committee, but this has happened very frequently—that a considerable portion of a clause has been closured, a number of Amendments being passed over without any consideration or debate whatever. In a case of that sort when the Bill comes up to your Lordships' House I think it is only right that we should have some means of knowing what the clauses are which have not been considered. As we know, there is no record at all of what happens in Grand Committee, to which nearly all important Bills now go. I put this Motion down with the view of obtaining information on these points. I do not attach any particular value to the terms of the Motion, and I see that it is open to some of the objections which have been raised. I do not, therefore, intend to press it in its present form, provided I can obtain some assurance on the matter from His Majesty's Government. If the request is limited to such cases as those which I have mentioned, will the Government be willing to join with me in drawing up a Motion which will give that information to the House? It seems to me that that is a very fair offer, and I should like to know what the Government have to say to it.


My Lords, I think it would be most undesirable that the House of Lords should institute an inquiry as to the way work is done in the other House.


That is not my object.


No matter what object the noble Earl has in view, his Motion would be regarded as the institution of an inquiry by your Lordships into the character of the consideration which the other House gives to Bills. That, of course, opens up at once the possibility of a reciprocal inquiry. I ask your Lordships what would be your feeling if a Motion were moved elsewhere for an inquiry as to the number of Peers present when a particular Bill was read a second time; as to the amount of time spent over that Bill; indeed, as to the degree of labour bestowed by your Lordships upon Bills. In the absence of much more serious argument, I would strongly deprecate such an inquiry as that proposed by the noble Earl. I would point out, further, that materials do not exist, so far as I know, for making any such Return, and the Motion, if carried, would lead to most extraordinary results. The noble Earl wishes to have information as to the application of the closure in the consideration of Bills. I believe such a thing has happened more than once as the Second Reading of a Bill having been closured. Therefore you would begin with a bracket which would include the whole Bill. Then the Bill is sent to Grand Committee, and there is no record of what happens there; and in regard to Committees of the Whole House, I believe I am right in saying that there is no record unless a division takes place on the question of the closure. If there is no division the Motion for the closure is not recorded, and you would be unable, by searching the records of the House, to find out what had happened. But supposing you had got all this information, there is the further stage of Report. You would therefore have closure upon closure, one bracket on the top of another, and then the Third Reading might be passed by means of the closure. I submit that the step proposed by the noble Earl should only be taken after grave consideration.


My Lords, as I do not agree with the opinions which have been expressed by my noble friends on this side of the House I think it right to say so. I think that if the Motion were carried, however pure your Lordships' intentions might be, your action would be regarded as an inquisition into the methods of business of the other House, and as such it would surely be resented. It is perfectly open to us to obtain the clerical assistance required in other ways, and I hope your Lordships will pause before assenting to this Motion


Might I ask whether the Government will accept a modified form of my Motion?


In reply to the noble Earl, I think he will agree that it is scarcely reasonable to ask us to assent to a Motion until we see its exact terms. If the noble Earl will evolve something and put it on the Paper we will, of course, give it the most careful consideration.


Having heard that statement I will withdraw my Motion on this occasion, reserving to myself the right to bring it forward in a modified form later.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.