HL Deb 13 July 1908 vol 192 cc356-64

who had the following Question upon the Paper— To ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he is able to make any announcement as to the dates at which the measures mentioned in His Majesty's Speech from the Throne, or any of those measures, are likely to come before this House "— said: My Lords, since I put this Question upon the Paper the Prime Minister has made a statement in the House of Commons with regard to the position of public business—a statement which, at one moment, I hoped would afford a certain amount of illumination upon the point to which I most desire to draw your Lordships' attention. But the Prime Minister's statement, naturally enough, was directed to the situation in the House of Commons and not to the situation in the House of Lords. And it is to the situation in the House of Lords that I desire to direct the Question which stands in my name.

I do not think I misrepresent the feeling of a large number of your Lordships when I say that the prospect that lies before us in regard to the distribution of work between the two Houses is one which fills us with very considerable apprehension. It has always been a source of complaint in this House that we are not given sufficient opportunities for examining the measures which come before us. We are continually told that our principal business is the business of revision, but it seems to be forgotten that if revision is to be of the proper kind it must take place in a deliberate fashion; and, session after session, in the last hours, perhaps, of the time available, we are asked to consider measures which we have had no proper opportunity of examining. My Lords, that evil—that abuse—I daresay the noble Lord who leads the House will remind me of it—is an abuse which is of long standing; but on the other, hand, it has never yet, I believe, reached the dimensions which it has now assumed; and that is due to the fact that in the other House of Parliament, Ministers resort more and more, with every session which passes, to expedients for curtailing debate which deny to the other Chamber of the Legislature full opportunity of discussing the Government Bills, and deny to this House the opportunity of considering the arguments which might be adduced for or against them. Now, although the Prime Minister's statement, made last Friday, does not throw much light upon the legislative proceedings in this House. Mr. Asquith made last month another statement which did contain some very important references to the general question. In that speech, which was coloured by a very sanguine and optimistic tone, the Prime Minister, after referring to the zeal and efficiency with which the different Departments of the Government were administered—and after dwelling upon the fact that there were no differences of opinion amongst his colleagues, or indeed no differences of any great moment amongst his followers, went on to say that in these very favourable circumstances—I will use his own words— We have laid on the Table of the House of Commons a series of measures which, judged by their number, or still more by their importance and magnitude, would, at no remote date, have been regarded as adequate material for the life work of a whole Parliament. The Prime Minister coupled this announcement with a few "precautionary words." He admitted that people may form a very varying estimate of the power of human endurance and of the capacity of the Parliamentary machine, and then he used this remarkable expression. Unless there is to be a chronic overcrowding on the legislative high road, we must aim each year at a larger concentration of effort on a smaller number of objects. That, to my mind, is a very admirable principle. We in this House, I suppose, may, consider that we too are passengers on the Parliamentary machine, and we have, perhaps, a right to throw a glance upon the legislative high road and to conjecture, if we can, what the condition of the traffic is likely to be later on in the year through which we are passing. In the gracious speech from the Throne ten measures of first-rate importance were enumerated: the Old-Age Pensions Bill, the Licensing Bill, the Education Bill, the Bill dealing with Coal Mines, the Bill dealing with Housing and Town Planning, the English Land Values Bill, the Irish Universities Bill, the Land Purchase (Ireland) Bill, the Port and Waterway of London Bill, and the Bill for the Protection of Children; and there were, as I daresay your Lordships remember, the two Scottish Bills which were carried over from last session and which were introduced early in the year into your Lordships' House. Now, how does Parliament stand with regard to these Bills? The Old-Age Pensions Bill has come to your Lordships' House and was read a first time last Friday. The Licensing Bill has reached, or is about to reach, Committee Stage. Then we come to the Education Bill. The Education Bill was introduced amid much sound and fury; but it has faded out of our sight and we do not quite know whether it is dead or asleep. If the noble Earl is able to give us any glimpse of the present condition of that Bill I think the House will be grateful to him. The Coal Mines Bill is still, I understand, before a Standing Committee of the House of Commons. The Housing and Town Planning Bill has been only read a first time in the House of Commons. The English Land Values Bill has not been introduced. The Irish Universities Bill has reached the Report Stage. The Land Purchase (Ireland) Bill has not been introduced. The Port and Waterway of London Bill is still before a Joint Committee; and the Protection of Children Bill has only reached the Report Stage.

Then, my Lords, it comes to tins—that we have one important measure, the Old-Age Pensions Bill, which has actually reached this House, and we have disposed of the two Bills which were carried over from last session; but with those exceptions, of this long list with which I have troubled your Lordships, not a single measure of importance is, as far as we are aware, likely to come before the consideration of your Lordships' House in the near future. Of course we are told that there is to be an autumn session. I am no opponent of autumn sessions. I doubt whether in this House they are as unpopular as in many other quarters; but they are open to this great objection, that they deprive Ministers, and all the working officials whose business it is to elaborate Government measures, of the comparative leisure and freedom from interruption for which they can only look at a time when the Government Offices are not liable to be disturbed by the alarums and excursions inseparable from the Parliamentary session. The result of an autumn session generally is, and it seems to me can scarcely fail to be, this—that the Government measures are introduced to Parliament in a crude and undigested state, greatly adding to the labours of both Houses and greatly diminishing the prospect of thoroughly considered and useful legislation.

This session falls, then, into two halves, the period which began in January last and will end the week after next, and the period which will begin on 12th October and will, I suppose, come to an end very near Christmas time. We know how we have fared with regard to the spring and summer portion of the session. We have now three weeks remaining, and we know exactly what work lies before us during those three weeks. We have the Old-Age Pensions Bill, greatly altered during its passage through the House of Commons, and only circulated to this House on Saturday last. I understand there is a chance that the Irish. Universities Bill may reach us—probably the noble Earl will give us information upon that point. And I must not forget to mention the Finance Bill, about which I have no doubt some of your Lordships will have something to say. But may we be permitted to cast a glance upon the second portion of the session which is to begin in the month of October? We are apt to look upon an autumn session as a sort of boundless hinterland in which everybody who desires to promote legislation can stake out an unlimited claim of his own. But after all, my Lords, how long will the autumn session of this year last? Nine, or I suppose, at the utmost ten, weeks, and during that time His Majesty's Government will have to make what progress they can with that very formidable list of Bills which I read to the House just now. I see that besides those Bills, there are a bevy of minor measures which I have not particularised, and there are those private Members' Bills which His Majesty's Government are so fond of taking under their protection and of sending up to this House. I hope the noble Earl will be able to reassure us, but I venture to think that everything points to a repetition during next November or December—a repetition upon an even worse scale than anything which we have yet known—of the kind of legislative scramble to which this House has been used in the concluding days of the session of Parliament. I venture to say one word (I hope the noble Earl will not take it amiss) of warning. I believe that this House will resent, and will resist, the attempt to repeat, year after year, this process of rushing Bills through the House under conditions which render their proper examination impossible. I venture to recall a statement made by the late Prime Minister and mentioned the other evening in this House by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh, with reference to the conduct of the House of Lords in refusing to pursue the discussion of the Scottish Land Values Bill during the last few hours of the session. I rejoice to think that the propriety of our action was admitted by the late Prime Minister. And I am not without hopes that the present Prime Minister may be found disposed to take a similar view; for in a speech from which I have already quoted he used these words— I am satisfied that the next, and the moat urgent, step in the improvement of our procedure is that, either generally, or as regards particular measures, the non-completed work of one session may be resumed where it was left off. I remember a colleague of the noble Earl opposite, Lord Tweedmouth, saying something of the same kind in this House, and I should like very much to be told to-night whether that statement represents the deliberate view of His Majesty's Government and whether they intend to act upon it. That plan of carrying over to another session the Bills which have not been adequately discussed may not be the best remedy, and may not be the only remedy; but of this I am convinced, that some remedy is urgently required for the state of things which I have tried to describe. I venture to say this, that nothing more indecent, nothing less conducive to the efficiency of our debates, nothing more likely to create feelings of annoyance and exasperation fatal to the proper conduct of our debates and to the examination of measures upon their true merits, can be conceived than the present arrangement under which the Government of the day brings in a huge and inflated programme under circumstances which render it absolutely impossible that this House should be given the opportunities to which it is entitled for examining the proposals of His Majesty's Government.


My Lords, of course we cannot complain that the noble Marquess has, at this period of the session, asked for some information with regard to the measures which His Majesty's Government contemplate proceeding with in your Lordships' House. As the noble Marquess has told us, the Old-Age Pensions Bill reached this House on Friday last, and was circulated on Saturday. I propose to take the Second Reading, if that is agreeable to the House, to-day week. I should have been prepared to take it on Thursday, but I understand that noble Lords opposite will be glad of a somewhat longer interval, although it is not a very long Bill. But I hope in this case it may be possible to proceed pretty quickly with the. Committee stage. The Bill of course is one of the first importance, but it is very largely a Money Bill, and although there are parts of it which have nothing to do with money voted by the House of Commons, yet at the same time there are many important points in connection with it which are not of the character which your Lordships' House is used to discuss at any great length, or at any rate in great detail. Then the Finance Bill, as the noble Marquess has reminded us, will also be up very shortly. I understand that the Irish Universities Bill will be read a third time in another place in the latter part of next week, and therefore it will reach this House before we adjourn for our somewhat too brief holiday. That is not a Bill of a very controversial character, although it is one of great importance. With regard to the other measures to which the noble Marquess drew attention, I understand that the Children Bill, which is a very large measure, as your Lordships know, and one which I should think you would desire to discuss in some detail, will reach this House almost at the beginning of the autumn, session. The Scottish Education Bill will also arrive about the same time. As your Lordships know, in another place the Licensing Bill will have been taken for one or two days in Committee before the adjournment, and I hope, therefore, that it will reach us at a period in November which will give us quite as full an opportunity of discussing its provisions as has ever been the case in a Bill of the same kind in your Lordships' House. As regards the Education Bill, I am hot able to say anything. The noble Marquess spoke of the "sound and fury" with which the Bill had been introduced, and I am afraid there has been far too much "sound and fury" about the whole affair ever since we have been in office; but that has certainly been by no means confined to ourselves. I am indeed not apprised of what the actual condition of the question is at this moment, and therefore I must ask the indulgence of the House in saying no more on the subject. I hope for the best in the matter. The Port of London Bill is being considered by a Joint Committee of both Houses, and I think it is fair to assume that when it comes up it is not a measure which will take a very great deal of time in this House, although it is sure to be subjected to very close examination when it gets here. It is the case that, as usual, we always seem to be too short of business in the early part of the session, and to have far too much crowded upon us at the end. It has always been so in my recollection of this House, and we have had these complaints reiterated, whoever has been in office, and whichever side has been in power at the time.

There has been one cause of delay to which the noble Lord did not draw attention, and that was that we lost a full fortnight by the lamented illness of the late Prime Minister and the change of Government. That was an event which could not have been foreseen at the time that the King's Speech was issued. Then the noble Marquess said—and I confess that I heartily agree with him—that there are very grave objections from the point of view of public convenience to the holding of autumn sessions, I myself should be very sorry to see it made a uniform practice. Last year we fortunately avoided it. Another year I hope we may also be fortunate enough to avoid it, but with the heavy programme which we have before us this year, and more particularly with regard to the untoward circumstance to which I have alluded, it became forced upon our minds at a very early date of the session that an autumn session was inevitable.

Then the noble Marquess said he desired to give us a warning that the time might Come when the House of Lords would be tired of having Bills rushed through it, or attempted to be rushed through it, at the close of the session. It is perfectly true that the late Prime Minister never concealed his opinion, and never objected to stating it, that your Lordships' House had been badly treated in the matter of the Scottish Bills. I think we admitted it ourselves at the time, and there was no question that they came up too late at the end of the session, and my late right hon. friend stated that with the most absolute candour, as we should have expected of him. I quite agree that it is not fair to expect your Lordships' House to pass measures without full consideration, and I know that my right hon. friend, the present Prime Minister, is of the same opinion. Whether we shall be able to come to what is familiarly known as "carrying over," is a question on which I am sorry to say I am not able to enlighten the noble Marquess. It is a case which has strong recommendations, but, as we know, strong objections have also been entertained to it. If it is adopted at all, I hope it will always be adopted, so to speak, ad hoc, and in consideration of the particular circum stances and the particular measure, and that it will not become the general rule that all measures—especially those introduced by private Members of either House—are liable to be carried over from session to scission. I can foresee nothing more inconvenient to any Government or more disastrous generally than that possibility. But I am quite sure that my right hon. friend and the Government generally will take into consideration once more, with a view to possible assistance and convenience, this question of carrying over. I can promise the noble Marquess that, but I am unable to say anything more positive at this moment.


Can the noble Earl tell us anything about the Town Planning Bill?


I believe it is in Committee at this moment, but I am unable to say when it is likely to reach this House.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes past Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.