HL Deb 02 August 1910 vol 6 cc642-54

Order of the Day read for the consideration of the Commons Reason for disagreeing to the Lords Amendment.

[The reference is to Bell No. (77).]

Lords Amendment.

Clause 2, page 2, line 20, leave out ("September") and insert ("November")

The Commons disagree to this Amendment for the following reason—

Because it is not advisable to further extend the period during which claims under this section may be made.

Moved, That the Commons Reason for disagreeing to the Lords Amendment be considered.—(Earl Carrington.)


My Lords, on that Motion I desire to say a few words. Your Lordships will notice that there is no claim of privilege made by the House of Commons in regard to this Amendment, upon which your Lordships are to be asked not to insist. The House will recollect that when we were in Committee privilege was very distinctly claimed against the Amendment by the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture. The noble Earl did not condescend to argue the Amendment on its merits, and no reason was given us for the claim of privilege, in spite of every effort made to extract the reason from him both on that occasion and when I ventured to allude again to the subject on the Third Reading of the Bill.

In these days, I think, nothing should be so jealously watched as claims of privilege. It seems to me that they are liable to be extended beyond anything we have been accustomed to, and sometimes in a most irresponsible and unusual manner. I think we ought to be very careful ourselves not to invade the privileges of another place. There is nothing which I personally desire to be so careful about. But I think we should be at least equally careful that new precedents are not made against us in these tunes and that an extension of privilege is not asked for beyond what is in accordance with precedent. When I challenged the noble Earl on the Third Reading of the Bill he would not give me any answer, but made a good-humoured allusion to what he described as a Homeric contest.

I felt that the matter was of sufficient importance to be followed up, and I therefore took measures to ascertain whether it was likely that any question of privilege would be raised and I received a reply from the highest authority available that it was not considered that there was any privilege in the Amendment at all. I felt that if the claim made had been given effect to in another place it would have required great care in this House because it would have been, in my humble opinion, a distinct extension of the claim of privilege beyond anything to which we have been accustomed; and we should have found ourselves in the position, if we had even rejected the Amendment on its merits, of having made a precedent against this House.

There may be a great deal to be said against the Amendment on its merits.

Into that I do not enter. But it does seem to me that questions of privilege should not be raised in this rash and ill-considered way; and I have given the noble Earl private notice of my intention to raise the question and to ask him if he will now tell us on whose authority and initiative the claim of privilege was made on this Amendment. I am confident it was not the noble Earl's own idea, because on the Second Reading of the Bill he actually invited us in so many words to make the very Amendment which we made in Committee. I will quote his words— There is a proviso in Clause 2 that no compensation shall be payable if the claim for compensation is not made before September 1, 1910. To-day is July 14. That would leave only six weeks, and the Bill is not through yet. Therefore I think your Lordships will Probably be of opinion that the time given is rather short, and I shall be prepared—and I think it would be only right to do so, as we want to act perfectly fairly and justly to agriculturists—to give a longer time than that now stated in the Bill." [6 H.L. Deb.,5 s., col. 190.] On that invitation a noble Earl on the Opposition side of the House put down an Amendment to extend the period by two months, and we were met then, not by any argument whatever, but by the simple statement that the Amendment was a breach of privilege. I think it is fair to ask who started the idea; whether it was upon the authority of the noble Earl's private secretary or of some under-strapper in the Department of Agriculture. It is quite clear that it was not done on the noble Earl's initiative, or he never would have made the suggestion on Second Reading. These are serious things. I desire to treat the other House with the utmost respect; but, at the same time, I do think your Lordships ought to maintain a guardianship over this matter and see that privilege is not extended against you.


My Lords. I have no reason to complain of the noble Lord's action in bringing forward this question. He has quoted from the Official Report what I said in moving the Second Reading of the Bill, and by those words, of course, I am prepared to stand. The best of us make mistakes sometimes, and when on the spur of the moment I made the statement as to the shortness of the notice it did not occur to me that this Bill had been an agreed Bill between both sides of the House of Commons. I think on reflection—and I suppose every one is entitled to reflect—that if your Lordships would assent to the suggestion it would be a pity to disturb the agreement which had been come to on both sides of the House, especially as the matter is not only retrospective but exceptional.

There will be no hardship on farmers in fixing the date as September 1, because as soon as the Bill becomes law the Board of Agriculture will of course at once call the attention of all county councils to the Act. Though it is perfectly true that the claim must be made before September 1 in this year, yet the tenant-farmer who makes a claim will not be required to make a full and detailed claim by that date. He has only got to give notice of his intention to make a claim, and he will have a good long time after that date to make out his detailed claim. This question has been mooted over and over again in Parliament, and has been known to all county councils for months and to every party who may possibly be entitled to make a claim. Therefore I think on the merits there is a good case for asking your Lordships not to insist on the lengthened period.

As to the question of breach of privilege, I was informed on the best authority that was at my disposal at the time that if the date was altered it would clearly be a question of privilege, and that that question would be raised in the Commons. How could I have acted otherwise than I did when I was told by a high authority—not a private secretary?


What authority?


I will come to that in a moment. If a Minister is told on high authority that a certain question will be considered a matter of privilege in the other House, surely he ought not to remain silent. It was only courteous and fair that I should inform your Lordships what I believed was likely to happen. I have been asked what was my authority. I think my answer had better be that it was very high authority indeed; I will not say the very highest, because I presume the highest authority in these matters is the House of Commons itself. I entirely accept the responsibility in this matter. If I have sinned I am very sorry for it. I hope your Lordships will accept my explanation and not insist upon your Amendment, but allow the Bill, which will be a great boon and relief to a most deserving and hard-working set of people, to go through.


My Lords, I think the House is indebted to my noble friend who is acting as Chairman of Committees for having called attention to this singular episode. The question of the conflict between the privilege of your Lordships' House and the privilege of the House of Commons is a very serious one. I have on more than one occasion felt it my duty to call attention to the matter, and I share my noble friend's feeling that we ought to be extremely careful how we allow any new encroachment—there have been many old encroachments—on the privileges of this House. I hope the noble Earl opposite will not take it amiss if I tell him that we on this side of the House are not quite so well satisfied with his explanation of the occurrence as he appears to be himself.

The story is really a very singular and instructive one. In the first place, the noble Earl with great effect criticised his own Bill and pointed out that it was open to serious objection at a particular point. Thereupon a noble friend of mine who is not here to-night, Lord Dunmore, taking the noble Earl at his word, moved an Amendment designed to carry out the very suggestion which the noble Earl himself had made, and that Amendment was supported and found favour with your Lordships. The noble Earl, however, objected to the Amendment, not upon its merits—it was impossible for him to object to it upon its merits after his speech in moving the Second Reading of the Bill—but upon the point of privilege. He told the House that he felt certain that the Amendment would be objected to elsewhere on the ground of privilege. I must be allowed to say that whatever the authority by which the noble Earl was inspired he was rather premature in raising the question of privilege at that stage and in this House; and for this reason, that even if an Amendment made by your Lordships should happen to be clearly an encroachment of the privilege of the House of Commons, it does not in the least follow that the House. of Commons need insist on its privilege; and if in this case a question of privilege had arisen elsewhere it might perfectly well have been pleaded that upon the merits, the Amendment being consonant with the suggestion of the noble Earl himself, the House of Commons ought not to insist upon its own extreme rights.

Now the Amendment comes back to us, and the noble Earl asks us not to insist upon it, not on the question of privilege, but he goes back on the question of merits, and I must say I was anxious to see what kind of a case he could make out against the Amendment upon the merits. His defence was, as I understood him, that this was an agreed Bill. But, my Lords, what agreement can there be elsewhere that would preclude this House from putting in a legitimate Amendment, an Amendment suggested by the noble Earl himself, and obviously on the face of it wholly unexceptionable? I am told that even in the House of Commons the question of the date to be inserted in the Bill was strongly raised, and that a member of His Majesty's Government suggested in that House that owing to the delay which had taken place the grievance of the farmers might be met if the Bill were amended in this House. That was a suggestion which, as I understand, was actually made in the House of Commons by Sir E. Strachey, who represents there the Department over which the noble Earl presides. What will happen if we do not press this Amendment? The agriculturists, who have found in the noble Earl opposite so stalwart a champion, will have something like three weeks only left them to put in these claims. That is, according to the showing of the noble Earl himself, very short shrift indeed; and I must say I have heard nothing yet to satisfy me that after all that has taken place we should not be right in insisting upon the Amendment of my noble friend Lord Dunmore.


My Lords, might I ask the noble Earl in charge of this Bill a question with reference to a statement he made this evening? He said that the date of September 1 would give the tenant farmer plenty of time because all that was necessary under the Bill was that he should give notice by that date that he intended to claim. Would the noble Earl kindly point out to me where words are to be found in the Bill to that effect? I cannot find anything about it.


My Lords, I should also like to put a question to the noble Earl. He said that it is his intention, if the Bill becomes law, to at once communicate with all the county councils in England so that the claims to be raised can be brought forward. The county council over which I have the honour to preside meets the day after to-morrow, but does not meet again until November. I should be obliged to the noble Earl if he would tell us how he is going to communicate in such a case as that, which is not an uncommon one, with the county councils. I suppose his answer will be that any letter sent from his Department to a county council would be referred to the small holdings committee or to some other committee. At any other time of the year that might be a fairly satisfactory answer, but I beg to remind the noble Earl that committees of county councils, like other people, go for a holiday occasionally, and August and September are months in which it is most difficult to get committees together or to get any business done in connection with county councils. I do not think there could have been a time of the year or an arrangement more thoroughly inconvenient. I wish the noble Earl would intimate, if possible, how these difficulties are to be got over.


My Lords, I should like to say a word on this matter, because I took part in the discussion in Committee, when I sat next to my noble friend the Minister for Agriculture. I do not think that justice has been done to my noble friend. What took place was this. The noble Lord the Acting Chairman of Committees has said that he received an intimation from a high authority that this was not likely to be regarded as a matter of privilege in the House of Commons. Very well; but my noble friend Lord Carrington had received—he showed it to me—a communication in a different sense.


From whom?


The noble Marquess did not ask that question of Lord Balfour of Burleigh when he made his statement, and I really do not know why he is asking it of me. Having received the information to which I have referred, my noble friend the President of the Board of Agriculture wished to avoid any action likely to result in a conflict on a matter which, after all, is not one of much importance. I do not think he expressed his own private opinion that it was a matter of privilege. Certainly when I supported him I did not do so. What I said was that I thought it a matter which was generally judged of by the House of Commons, and which was best left to that House. But I had reason for thinking that the question would be raised. The only motive the noble Earl had was a desire to prevent a conflict which no one wishes, and I am quite sure the House will do justice to the reasons which actuated my noble friend. There was no intention whatever on his part of infringing the rights and privileges of this House or of exaggerating those of the other, but simply to prevent a conflict.


My Lords, I have been asked two questions on this thorny subject, one by Lord Camperdown as to the words in the Bill. I am not a judge of English; I am not a literary man, and must rather plead ignorance. I believe, however, that the word "claim" does not signify the detailed claim, which can be sent later.


Where are the words in the Bill which say that the detailed scheme can be sent in afterwards?


That is the action the Board of Agriculture will take under the Act. Then as to the question put to me by the noble Duke opposite as to the county councils and small holdings committees going on holiday, there will, I suppose, be some one to attend to business. The clerk or some deputy clerk will be there, or, at any rate, there will be somebody on the premises, and there would not be very much difficulty, I presume, in that person, whoever he may be, sending a notice to the county papers, which are published every week, to inform the tenant farmers of what had happened, and to tell them that they should send in their claims before the end of the present month.


My Lords, I quite admit that I had no right to ask the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack to give us the name of his correspondent who has proved to be an unreliable correspondent in this instance.

For we have it on the authority of my noble friend who sits at the Table (Lord Balfour of Burleigh) that he knows from a very high authority indeed that this Amendment was not within the limits of a breach of privilege, and we have, beyond that, the authority of the House of Commons itself, which has, in fact, not raised the question of privilege. This practically decides that matter. I did not rise to prolong the discussion beyond saying that I do think it a matter of regret that those who are responsible for the honour and authority of this House should be the first to desire to diminish its privileges. I have been brought up to believe that those who have the great privilege and honour of leading this House should be the guardians of its privileges, and should be even more eager—


Will the noble Marquess allow me to ask him—Does he think that a Minister, when he has real reason for believing that there may be conflict between the two Houses raised by an Amendment, is not at liberty to tell the House that they had better decide not to pass that Amendment? Is that not acting loyally to the House of which he is a member?


I have not seen the terms of this mysterious communication to which the noble and learned Lord has alluded. Of course, if that communication came from the highest authority in the House of Commons and if it was an explicit statement that the Amendment would be regarded as a breach of privilege, no doubt the Minister would be justified in so informing this House. But if it is anything short of that I should hope that, at any rate in the future—I put it no higher than that—noble Lords who lead this House will be a little more anxious to defend its privileges.

I rose, however, not to prolong this discussion, but to respectfully ask the noble Earl who leads the House whether he will give us a reply upon the merits of this Amendment. The matter of privilege has now been settled, but there are the merits of the Amendment itself. Let me recall what the state of the case is on the merits. On July 14 the noble Earl who is responsible for this Bill made a statement in this House in which he said that the time which lay between that date and September I was too short if we were to treat agricultural interests fairly. Does he think that the cogency of that argument has been diminished by the fact that we are now speaking on August 2? Does he think, if it was too short a time when it was six weeks, that it is quite sufficient time when it is very little more than three weeks? I mean, what position do the noble Earl and his Department and His Majesty's Government take up on this Amendment? Why should we not insist upon it? It is not a breach of privilege, we know. It is the proposal of His Majesty's Government both in this House and in the other House. There may be a reason, but what possible reason can there be for not accepting the Amendment? The noble Earl says there was an agreement. Between whom was it made? We cannot have all these mysteries. Where is the alleged agreement? Is it between noble Lords on that side of the House and noble Lords on this side?


I was speaking of an agreement in the House of Commons.


Between whom was the agreement made? Was it between the friends of the noble Earl in the House of Commons and our friends in that House? If that is so, we dispense the noble Lord from that, part of the agreement. If it is the Unionist Party who agreed, we dispense the noble Earl—


It is a great many years since I was in the House of Commons, but in my time agreements were often come to between both sides and were always respected.


Between whom was the agreement made? Was it between the Government and the Opposition in the House of Commons, or between the Government and the Irish Members. or the Government and the Labour Party?


It was between the Government and the Opposition.


We know nothing about such an agreement on these Benches. Unless the noble Earl can give, us something more specific than the kind of vague assurance that he has vouchsafed, I do not see that we can pay any attention to it. All we know is that by the consent of the Government itself this Amendment is urgently called for, and unless we hear some good reason to the contrary what can we do except insist?


My Lords, the noble Marquess has been good enough to address a personal appeal to me on this subject, although I do not, know' why I was singled out for the purpose. As far as this particular subject is concerned I occupy the position of the man in the street. I have only a hearsay knowledge of what passed. I am afraid I was not in the House when my noble friend made his original speech, and I am quite certain I was not in the House when the matter was considered in Committee. As your Lordships know, there have been circumstances which have caused me to be absent from my place somewhat oftener than I should have wished during the current session. Therefore when the noble Marquess asks me to defend the merits of the case I am afraid I must plead general ignorance of the subject, only modified by what I have heard fall from noble Lords on both sides of the House.

What I take to be the position is this. There was a feeling that the period of time given to the farmers for this particular purpose might not be long enough, but on consideration it appeared that the grievance, if grievance there was at all, was a very small one, and that, as a matter of fact, it was not easy to show that any farmer who desired to lodge this notice would not have, as a matter of fact, sufficient opportunity of doing so. That I take to be the argument that is used. Is that argument contravened? Is it maintained by noble Lords opposite that there would be any considerable section of people whose interests would be seriously damnified by retaining the earlier date? If not, I put it to the House whether it is worth while to enter into, I will not say a conflict because the matter is too small to justify the use of such a word, but into a difference of opinion with the House of Commons on a matter of this kind? I fully admit that it is entirely within your Lordships' right, if you desire to do so, to insist upon this Amendment. But in view of the fact that no substantial grievance is proved—if there were I should be the first to say by all means insist upon it—is it worth while? I do not put it higher than that.

I have no desire to engage in the separate controversy which was raised in regard to the question of privilege. I have frequently stated—and I do not know that I am in entire agreement with all my friends on this matter—that my own opinion is that it is as a general rule inadvisable for Ministers in this House, to whichever Party they belong—and I do not expect agreement from either side in saying so—to call attention to what may be regarded. in another place as a breach of privilege if it is a doubtful case. There may be cases so obvious that it is the duty of anybody, Minister or not, to call attention to the fact; but in other respects I have always personally preferred, and I think I have been blamed for it, to leave the House of Commons to look after its own privileges, which it is thoroughly competent to do. Perhaps I might say a little more. I speak with caution. But I confess I shall he very glad if the day ever comes when the question of privilege between the two Houses, which has given rise to so many difficulties, and which has, perhaps, caused almost more friction between the two Houses than any other subject—I am speaking, of course, not of the rejection of important Bills but of our daily work—can be cleared up once for all. It is one which has given many of us in this House great anxiety from time to time, and I hope that it may not be beyond the resources of civilisation in time to arrive at some general agreement on the subject.


My Lords, the noble Earl who has just sat down seemed to be surprised that we should have appealed to him to give us his opinion on the subject, and he spoke of himself as occupying the position of the man in the street. We are accustomed to look upon the noble Earl in a different light from that. We have always looked, and never in vain, for guidance in difficulties and for fair and honest dealing at the noble Earl's hands. I should like to put it to the noble Earl that the position we are in with regard to this Amendment—I am not dealing with the question of privilege—is an extraordinarily unsatisfactory one if we do not insist upon the Amendment. The noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture, in moving the Second Reading of the Bill on July 14, said that the date of September 1 would only leave six weeks, and he added that the Bill was not through yet. The noble Earl went on to say— Therefore I think your Lordships will probably be of opinion that the time given is rather short, and I shall be prepared—and I think it would be only right to do so as we want to act perfectly fairly and justly to agriculturists—to give a longer time than that now stated in the Bill. What is the reason for not carrying out that pledge? The noble Earl who has just spoken has given us no reason whatever. There is no statement that it will lead to inconvenience; no statement that the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture was misled or made a mistake in the matter. We have the declaration from the President of the Board of Agriculture here and the representative of the Board in the other House that the extension now asked for, and which has been inserted in the Bill, is a satisfactory extension. If we are to act fairly and justly to agriculturists it seems to me that the answer which the noble Earl who leads the House gave us just now really makes it almost compulsory on your Lordships' House to adhere to the Amendment. What is the objection to doing so? Who is going to be injured? The noble Earl who leads the House told us that it has not been proved that a large section of people will be grievously injured if the Amendment is not insisted upon. But who is going to be hurt if the Amendment is put in? No human being can be injured if we retain this Amendment. The Bill is now a retrospective Bill. Even the notice to September 1 is a notice of retrospective claims for retrospective injury done to tenants. Therefore I think, on behalf of the agriculturists who are to be dealt with so fairly and justly by the noble Earl at the head of the Agricultural Department, we have a right to ask your Lordships to adhere to the Amendment and retain November as the date in accordance with what was practically the promise of the noble Earl.

On Question, Motion that the Commons Reason for disagreeing to the Lords Amendment be considered, agreed to.


I beg to move that the House do not insist on the said Amendment.

Moved, That the House doth not insist on the said Amendment.—(Earl Carrington.)

On Question, resolved in the negative, and the said Amendment insisted upon accordingly.

A Committee appointed to prepare a Reason for insisting on the said Amendment: The Committee to meet forthwith.