HL Deb 21 March 1910 vol 5 cc413-22

House again in Committee (according to order) to consider the best means of reforming its existing organisation so as to constitute a strong and efficient Second Chamber.

[The EARL OF ONSLOW in the Chair.]



My Lords, I beg to move the first Resolution that stands in my name.

Moved to resolve, That a strong and efficient Second Chamber is not merely an integral part of the British Constitution, but is necessary to the well-being of the State and to the balance of Parliament.—(The Earl of Rosebery.)


My Lords, I do not know whether this Resolution, or, indeed, any of the Resolutions, is likely to lead to a very extended discussion. I think, perhaps, I ought to repeat the opinion which I stated on the original Motion of my noble friend, to the effect that in our view—our view is well known to your Lordships—the more urgent question is that of the relations between the two Houses. With regard to this first Resolution, again I need only repeat what I said on that occasion, that His Majesty's Government are of opinion that a Constitution of two Chambers is the one best suited to the needs and requirements of this country. But as regards the wording of the particular Resolution, it seems to me to be a case, if I may quote the saying of a well-known sage, in which "the bearing of the observation lies in the application of it." From one point of view everybody would desire that the Second Chamber should be strong and efficient—that is to say, that the people who sit in it should be strong in the sense in which you speak of a strong Committee. For instance, the Committee which was originally formed to consider this whole question on the Motion of my noble friend was undoubtedly an extremely strong Committee, although its terms of reference were not very wide. In that sense we should all of us agree that the Second Chamber should be strong and also it should be efficient. But, of course, we on this side of the House must guard ourselves against its being supposed, if we raise no objection to the Motion, that by a strong Second Chamber we mean a Second Chamber which is to possess and to exercise more power against the House of Commons than your Lordships have at present. If that is the meaning which it is desired to imply in the terms of the Resolution, of course we should not agree to it. For instance, what is called a strong Second Chamber might insist upon a supposed right to examine the details and amend all manner of financial provisions in different Bills. But subject to its being clearly understood that we do not desire to increase the powers of your Lordships' House, which some of us may be disposed to consider already excessive, I do not wish, on behalf of my noble friends behind me, to offer any opposition to this Resolution.


My Lords, I had no intention of taking part in this debate when I entered the House, but one or two observations fell from the noble Earl the Leader of the House which, I think, justify us in asking for a little explanation. The noble Earl has told us that he does not desire to oppose the Motion of the noble Earl on the understanding that the reformed House of Lords is not to be a stronger Chamber than is your Lordships' House at the present moment. I must say I do not think the noble Earl has ever led us to believe anything else. So far as I gather from the proposals of his colleagues, the idea is to weaken this House and to turn it into a Chamber with no power of any sort or kind in controlling any action of the House of Commons—a Chamber which would not have the power of rejecting any measure sent up to it by the House of Commons. In those circumstances I can quite understand the noble Earl saying that he does not desire to have a stronger Chamber. What is proposed is that the Second Chamber should eventually become a House of absolute nonentities. There was another expression which fell from the noble Earl which I would notice. He told us that he and his colleagues were in favour of a Second Chamber. I conclude that it is the Second Chamber to which I have alluded. But I read in this morning's newspaper a speech by the Home Secretary at Manchester in which he stated that he would in no way object to the country being governed by a single Chamber. Consequently, if the right hon. gentleman was speaking for the Government I find it somewhat difficult to reconcile the statement of the noble Earl who has just sat down with that of the Home Secretary. And I find it more difficult to reconcile the statement of the Home Secretary with that of his chief at Oxford, who a short time ago made a statement entirely different from that made by the Home Secretary on Saturday last. It would be interesting to know who really represents the Cabinet at the present moment—the Prime Minister, the noble Earl, or the Home Secretary. So far as I can see, we are entirely in the dark as to the views of the Government with respect to the proposals of my noble friend Lord Rosebery, and with regard to the future which they intend for your Lordships' House.


My Lords, I cannot help thinking that at this stage the House is in rather an unsatisfactory position. We are asked to affirm a Resolution which may have I do not know how many meanings.


Hear, hear.


It may mean that strength and efficiency, which are most admirable qualities, should be present in this House, as I trust they will always be present in either House—it may mean that, in which case it would be the affirmation to a commonplace, which I am far from supposing could possibly be the object of the noble Earl. On the contrary, from his speech in the previous debate it is obvious that he had some genuine and quite distinct proposals in his mind. What are those proposals? It can be of no particular value to the House to make a general affirmation of this kind unless it is filled out with sufficient detail—I do not say with minute detail—but with sufficient matter to enable us to know what it is that we are asked to affirm and what it is that those who may dissent from this Resolution are asked to deny; because when a Resolution of this kind has been passed it will be open to any number of interpretations upon the intention and meaning of the House. It seems to me that our position is simple enough. Our position is this. We are, I believe, a Government in favour of a Second Chamber. The real point upon which we differ from noble Lords opposite is not in regard to the composition of the Second Chamber, as to which we know nothing at present of the intentions of the Government, but in regard to the powers of the Second Chamber, on which we know there is a distinct and acute difference between us. I venture to suggest that it is not we who have to offer explanations, although we shall before long, I hope, put definite and specific proposals before the House for their consideration; but I cannot doubt for a moment that after the Report of the Committee of this House which sat eighteen months or two years ago, and after the speeches, full of suggestions of different kinds, that were made during the debate last week—I cannot doubt that there is some plan in the mind of the noble Earl or in the minds of other noble Lords who supported the proposal to go into Committee, and ought we not as soon as possible, in order to facilitate the usefulness of our discussion, to know what those proposals are? I mean so far, at all events, as they are proposals on which the body of the House represented by the noble Marquess are agreed. I hope we may be able in that way to obtain some early and fruitful results from the discussion which has been initiated upon the Motion of the noble Earl to go into Committee to consider this question.


My Lords, the attitude of the noble and learned Lord is, unless I misunderstand him, considerably more critical towards this Resolution than the attitude of the noble Earl who leads the House. We understood the noble Earl to regard the Resolution as at any rate an innocuous one. The noble and learned Lord, on the contrary, sees danger in it in consequence of the ambiguity of its language, and he insists particularly upon the ambiguity of the word "strong" in the phrase "strong and efficient Second Chamber." I am not responsible for the drafting of these Resolutions. At the same time I think my noble friend on the Cross Benches made it clear, and I think some of those who spoke on this side of the House made it perfectly clear, that when we spoke of a strong Second Chamber we meant not a strong Second Chamber in the sense of a Chamber which was strong in point of numbers, or indeed, in point of ability, but a Second Chamber which would be strong in the authority which it possessed—authority which it could only derive from the amount of public confidence which it inspired. It is interpreting the formula of my noble friend on the Cross Benches in that sense, and in that sense alone, that I shall vote with him for this Resolution. In regard to the question of the powers of this House, I do not think it has occurred to any of us to suggest that the powers which we now possess should be in any way increased. What we do protest against, and we protest as strongly as we can, is that those powers should be reduced—I may almost say nullified—by the Resolutions which we understand will shortly be presented to Parliament by His Majesty's Government. The powers of the House of Lords are of so modest a kind that the noble Viscount the Secretary of State for India, who will forgive me for again referring to him, told us the other evening that we had in effect already in this country a system of single-Chamber Government. Therefore I think we are right in assuming that our present powers are not of an inordinate character or of a character which should be tampered with. The other criticism of the noble and learned Lord was, I think, this, that he took some objection to this House being asked to commit itself to a somewhat vaguely worded proposition of this kind, and he said he thought it would be fairer to the House if the details were somewhat more copiously filled in. I agree that we must make up our minds to face the more detailed aspects of this important question. But there, again, the plan of campaign of the noble Earl on the Cross Benches seems to me to be a reasonable one. It is to obtain the adherence of the House in the first place to general propositions of a preliminary kind, and then to build on those other propositions which he will elaborate as time goes on. Therefore, I shall without any hesitation give my vote for the Resolution.


My Lords, I only rise for the purpose of correcting the noble Marquess's representation of what I ventured to say in the course of my speech on Monday evening last. I certainly did not mean to say that already we are governed by a single-Chamber Government. That would have been obviously absurd in face of the fact that your Lordships have thrown out a very important Bill, following other important Bills which your Lordships had rejected. All that I said was this—and I think it is worth consideration in the debates that are coming on in this House and in the country—that I am against a single-Chamber Government. I think there are mischiefs in it which we ought to prevent. But I wanted your Lordships not to be frightened by the mere phrase single-Chamber Government, because to the great intents and purposes of Government we are now under a single-Chamber system, and I read out from Mr. Balfour's address to his constituents in the City of London an enumeration, which was by no means a full or even an adequate enumeration, of the enormous powers now possessed and exercised without dispute or contention by the House of Commons. It is not disputed, in spite of what happened in November last, that the ultimate control of finance, the direction of taxation, and so forth, lie with the House of Commons, and even your Lordships, in your action which I thought at the time, and still think, lamentable, did not mean to say more than that the voice of the people should be heard. It was not contended that your Lordships had any right or power, for example, to amend a Finance Bill, and you only rejected the Finance Bill because you were not sure that the country's views had been heard upon it, or that the country's mind was in favour of it. Not one of your Lordships, not even those who take most high-flying views of what ought to be the powers of a Second Chamber, would say that you have the right to or could displace an Executive Government. I only want you to remember how far you have already gone, and where you stand in respect of single-Chamber Government. It seems to me that it would be quite impossible to look forward to the time when you could hope, as you are doing by this Motion of my noble friend, by some process of attrition to lessen the powers of the House of Commons so long as that House retains the authority of removing or appointing the Executive Government, and so long as it retains the whole control of the taxation of the country and of all Government affairs. The Foreign Secretary and the Cabinet may take a most disastrous step in foreign policy. Your Lordships may condemn it. The Foreign Secretary, no doubt, would regret that, but it would make no difference to the course of policy actually being carried out. Those are a few of the undisputed powers possessed by the House of Commons. I could go through the whole catalogue, but I only rose to correct the noble Marquess in the representation he gave of what I said.


May I say one word in answer to what has fallen from the Government Bench? There is no idea in this very innocent Resolution to alter in any way either by attrition or by any other process the powers of the House of Commons. I have not arrived, nor have noble Lords who sit behind me, however young they may be, at that time of life to be able to credit those who sit in this House with such a degree of sagacity as might imply an attempt to diminish the powers of the House of Commons. I venture to say that that idea has never occurred to a single man in this House. Then, on the question of foreign policy. The noble Viscount thinks that the Foreign Secretary or the Cabinet might embark on the most daring flight of foreign policy without the control of this House. So they might without the control of the House of Commons. There is nothing whatever in that suggestion.


If he did a Vote of Censure would be moved, and if the Party of noble Lords opposite were strong enough it would be carried and he would be dismissed.


Any Minister would be equally under the censure of the House of Commons, but as it happens I think that the Foreign Minister of this country is more independent of Parliament in his acts than any other Minister that exists. For all we know the Foreign Minister at this moment may be entering into an agreement of which we shall never hear, or may not have an idea for months and years, and when we do he may be far beyond the criticism of the House of Commons. If my noble friend will examine his own proposition he will see that it does not extend beyond this, that any Minister who undergoes the censure of the House of Commons, whatever his Department may be, must necessarily disappear. It is not confined to the control of foreign affairs. If my noble friend looks back over past years he will find that all the principal debates on foreign affairs have taken place in this House, and that it is only owing to the great principle of the continuity of foreign policy that those debates do not occur here now. I venture to say that if those debates did take place in this House now they would be quite as influential and as eagerly read in the country as debates in the House of Commons. Now I come to another class of idea. I only rose entirely to deny such an insane and preposterous idea that it is in the thought of anybody here to desire to limit the powers and functions of the House of Commons. If I may say so, our intentions are rather of a preservative and defensive character. I heard with some astonishment from the Government Benches of all places in the world that there is some ambiguity in the proposition I have ventured to set out that a strong and efficient Second Chamber is necessary to balance the Constitution. I cannot conceive a proposition so absolutely free from ambiguity as the one embodied in the Resolution. From whom does the charge of ambiguity come? From a Government every member of which whenever he speaks expresses a different view of policy on the question of a Second or a Single Chamber, and from whom we have laboriously to gather stick by stick the faggot of Government policy. I do not attach so much importance as the noble Marquess did to the speech of the Home Secretary the other day. The Home Secretary said that so far as he was personally concerned he felt no great apprehension at the thought of a Single Chamber. I think that in far-away days I heard something of the same kind from the noble Viscount the Secretary of State for India. That is what we call a pious opinion. But on the general proposition the Home Secretary sounded no uncertain note. We do not know what the propositions of the Government are, in spite of the Government constantly telling us. That is part of that freedom from ambiguity which is the boast on which the Government plume themselves The Home Secretary told us that the proposals of the Government are the Campbell-Bannerman Resolutions stiffened up and fortified by the present Prime Minister. As the Campbell-Bannerman Resolutions pulverised this House what remains for the Prime Minister to do in the way of strengthening and fortifying them is far beyond my comprehension. And this is the moment when we are asked in this Second Chamber, which is menaced with practical extinction by the Government, what right we have to put on our Journals a declaration that we think that a strong and efficient Second Chamber is necessary to the Constitution.


My Lords, if I may with deference say so, I do not understand how the views which the noble Viscount opposite has given us of the position of this House—views which those of us who recognise his constitutional authority and have been accustomed to look to his name as our guide in many historical matters must recognise as being supreme—I do not understand how his views as to the comparatively small powers now exercised by this Chamber can be consistent with his strong support of a policy which is destined to further weaken those powers; and I cannot understand how the views he holds can be reconciled with the views of his followers, and other sections who are not his followers but who are co-operating with His Majesty's Government, entirely against the principle or use of any Second Chamber at all. I hope that his followers and the allies of the Government throughout the country will take note of the strong views which the noble Viscount holds as to the present functions of the House of Lords and that we shall not hear any more in the country of the extravagant assumption of powers, which is the foundation of the whole campaign against the House of Lords at this moment—the assumption that this Chamber is endeavouring to arrogate to itself powers which the noble Viscount says we do not arrogate. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has criticised the noble Earl on the Cross Benches because he has not put down in detail on the Paper the full plan of what he proposes to do. Surely the noble Earl gave a very fair indication of the main outlines on which he proposed to work. Surely these three preliminary Resolutions supply a clear and succinct proposition of the beginnings of this movement, and the procedure the noble Earl is adopting bears a very close similarity to the procedure which the Government are themselves adopting. I understand that His Majesty's Government propose to proceed by Resolution in the House of Commons.


The Resolutions will be explicit.


I am glad to hear from the noble and learned Lord that we shall have something explicit from His Majesty's Government, but I venture, with all due deference, to express the opinion that whatever may be said about the Resolutions of the noble Earl on the Cross Benches they are at least explicit. It is perfectly clear what they mean, and if the Government, with all the resources at their disposal, choose to proceed by Resolution, I do not see why the noble Earl on the Cross Benches, who has not got those resources at his command, should be criticised for proceeding by exactly the same method and laying on the Paper these clear and concise expressions of opinion. I support the Resolution with all the strength in my power. Though noble Lords opposite support, and though, as I understand, His Majesty's Government support, the attribute "strong and efficient" for a Second Chamber, they must realise—every member of this House must realist—that there is a section of the community in this country which not only desires that the Second Chamber should not be strong and efficient, but that it should not exist at all; and it is something that, with the general consent of all parties in this House, there should be placed upon our Journals the opinion that there should exist a Second Chamber of a strong and efficient character.

On Question, Motion agreed to.