HL Deb 31 July 1913 vol 14 cc1573-88

VISCOUNT MIDLETON rose to ask the Secretary of State for India whether it is in contemplation, by legislation or otherwise, to introduce any changes into the conduct of business in the India Office.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I have ventured to put this Question on the Paper because for some little time past statements have been current, especially in one or two of the leading Indian newspapers, to the effect that some change is imminent in the conduct of business at the India Office, and, I think it has also been suggested, in the relations between the Secretary of State and the Viceroy. It would be, I think, undesirable for me to enter into any of these questions while we are still in ignorance as to whether the Government have decided to take any action in either of the directions suggested. With regard to the conduct of the India Office itself, although the circumstances of the Secretary of State are peculiar as compared to other Offices in that he is assisted by a Council and acts in most of his official acts in concert with a Council, at the same time with regard to the actual arrangements of business in the India Office the Secretary of State has, without legislation, very great powers, and if there is anything which calls for amendment in the present conduct of business there I apprehend that the Secretary of State has it in his own power to make very considerable changes without in any way infringing the Act under which the business of the India Office is carried out. As to the relations between the Secretary of State and the Viceroy I should be still unwilling to enter into that subject, except to say that we all realise that great changes have been carried out recently in regard to the conduct of business in India, but nothing certainly has transpired to make us believe that these changes have in any way altered the extremely harmonious working between the Secretary of State and the India Office on the one hand and the Viceroy and the India Council on the other. Therefore without in any way prejudging any of the questions at issue, I think perhaps the noble Marquess will allow me to take this opportunity of putting the Question standing in my name on the Paper in order that he may inform the House before we separate whether these rumours have any foundation, and, if he so desires it, to set them at rest.


My Lords, I am afraid that I must occupy rather more of the time of the House than would be needed for a simple answer to the Question put to me by the noble Viscount. I have to thank him for giving me full notice of his intention to raise this matter, because the subject of the government of India and of the methods by which it is conducted are intrinsically of vast importance, although the actual details of that government cannot be expected to be of close interest to a large number of people in this country. But so far as this House is concerned there are many noble Lords who, in one way or another, have been engaged with the conduct of Indian affairs, and I have no doubt they will be glad to know what the present position is, and how far it is contemplated to propose any changes in that position.

I propose to allude to various points in connection with our Office affairs in the merest outline, and I venture to assume that until I am able to put some distinct proposals before the House noble Lords will desire to postpone anything in the nature of a general discussion. It is true, as the noble Viscount has pointed out, that there are many changes in the conduct of the business of the India Office which can be carried out by the Secretary of State under the powers already given him by Parliament without asking for the amendment of any Act. But those possibilities are so closely interwoven with the possible necessities of asking for statutory sanction for changes that it is almost necessary to describe the subject as a whole, and to mention certain matters upon which the discretion of any Secretary of State might be exercised without application to Parliament.

When I went to the India Office quite late in the year 1910 I found that the conduct of business there had for some little time been the subject of discussion, and it was obviously necessary for me to wait for a little time to get some experience of the particular methods of the India Office before I could attempt to form any conclusion as to whether or not changes were necessary. It so happens that during the last thirty years I have been an inmate in various different capacities of several Public Offices, and I was able, therefore, to institute certain comparisons of the various methods which obtain, and to compare them with those of the India Office. Since my appointment, as it happened, I have been absent from my Office twice for two periods of several months in duration—once from illness, and once when I was attending His Majesty in India; but so far as these particular periods were concerned the time was in no way wasted, because the interval has enabled me to obtain opinions on the working of the Office and upon possible changes from many of those who are most competent to speak on the subject. Those who have, either in India or this country, had personal experience of the methods under which the India Office works have in a considerable number been good enough to supply me confidentially with their personal impression. I ought particularly to express my obligations to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mr. Montagu, who has brought to bear much industry and acute observation in studying this subject of business; and all those of your Lordships who have had to do with Public Offices will, I am sure, agree that in many respects as regards the daily details of an Office an Under-Secretary is in a stronger position than his Chief to observe and also to form critical opinions upon the every-day proceedings of the Office.

I found, in collecting the various opinions of experienced men, that the general opinion appeared to be, in the words of one of my eminent predecessors, that the procedure of the Office in relation to India was "intolerably cumbrous and dilatory." In discussing the general question I must remind your Lordships, as the noble Viscount did, that the India Office is different in constitution from other Offices, from the fact that there is a Council which works with the Secretary of State. It is a unique form of Council, because such other bodies as the Board of Admiralty and the Army Council are really administrative boards, which the Council of India is not. It differs in important respects. The most important point to remember is that the Secretary of State in Council controls by a majority of votes the grants or appropriations of revenue; that is to say, the whole control of the expenditure of India finally rests with that body. It is familiar, I think, almost to everybody that the inception of this Council dates from the year 1858, when after the great Mutiny of the previous year a Secretary of State with this Council was substituted for the Honourable East India Company and the Board of Control. But it is worth noticing that the idea of the Council goes back further than that. It had been seriously mooted in 1853, when the Mutiny was never dreamt of; and for twenty years before that the East India Company had to some extent altered in character and ceased to be the great commercial body which it had been in the past. In February, 1858, Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister, and he brought in a Bill for the dissolution of the Company and the formation of the Council. He proposed that there should be a Council of eight members whose tenure of office would be for five years, and that for the sanctioning of expenditure at least four of those eight must concur with the Secretary of State; and the Council was to distribute its business among the various members according to the different departments in the Office. The members of the Council were to receive a salary of £1,000 a year.

Almost immediately afterwards came the great Parliamentary débûcle which noble Lords will remember occurred after the attempt by Orsini on the life of the Emperor Napoleon. The attitude of Lord Palmerston and his Government with respect to such crimes caused him to be defeated in the House of Commons, and they were turned out and succeeded by the Government of Lord Derby. Accordingly in March, only a month later, Mr. Disraeli tried his hand at a similar task. He introduced a Bill involving the creation of a Council of a different kind, a Council of eighteen members with a six years' tenure; nine of them were to be nominated, and nine were to be elected by some singular constituencies composed of Civil servants, of holders of India Stock, and of some of the great urban communities in this country. This Bill did not find very great favour, and it was finally withdrawn in the course of the summer; and Lord John Russell proposed that, as there were two rival measures similar in object but completely different in method, the House should content itself with passing certain Resolutions involving the disappearance of the Company, and this was accordingly done. The result was that, later still in the session of the same year, Lord Stanley, whom we remember in this House as the fifteenth Lord Derby (the uncle of the noble Earl who sits on the Front Bench opposite), the last President of the Board of Control and afterwards the first Secretary of State for India, brought in what was known as No. 3 Bill, which became an Act and is the Act under which the India Office is now worked, although various modifications have been introduced into the system since. That created a Council of fifteen members receiving a salary of £1,200 a year. The conditions of tenure I will deal with later.

The debates in both Houses of Parliamen on that measure were of singular power and interest. Mr. Disraeli took a prominent part; Sir James Graham, Mr. Gladstone, and Mr. Bright all made speeches in the course of the debate, as did also a number of those particularly qualified to speak from Indian experience; and when the Bill came here the debates were also powerful and interesting, conducted by Lord Derby, by Lord Ellenborough, whose eloquence has remained a historical tradition in this House, and by Lord Granville on behalf of the Opposition. The measure received the Royal Assent in August of the year 1858. From the discussions and from the form which the measure ultimately assumed certain practical conclusions emerged. It was agreed by everybody that the Secretary of State should be assisted by a Council founded, no doubt, largely on the analogy of what had been the government of India under the East India Company. It is evident to anybody who reads the debates that there was a marked dread of the Government and in particular of a single Minister having uncontrolled power of spending the revenues of India, and there was also deep mistrust of the patronage of India being handed over to a single individual. But it was also generally agreed that the functions of the Council should be in the main advisory, and that the individual responsibility of the Secretary of State should be safeguarded and maintained. It was also frequently emphasised that the Council of India should not have to give its time to routine work but that it should mainly devote itself to important questions of policy and other matters of first-class interest.

The Act of 1858 is one of the most elaborate pieces of machinery which could be seen anywhere. I may again remind the House that its central point may be taken to be this—namely, that every order or communication proposed to be sent to India, and every order proposed to be made in respect of Indian affairs in the United Kingdom, must either be approved by the Council or must lie on the Council table for a period of seven days. I think the House will at once see that this rigid rule, added to the size of the Council, almost inevitably brought about a state of things in which the work of the Council would be mainly done by Committees, power being given in the Statute to divide the Council into such Committees. It became the natural trend of affairs that all business should in time fall within the scope of the work of such Committees, and for this reason—that, in the first case, where a conclusion had to be approved by the Council it was found to be an obvious saving of time in the long run for it to be examined by three or four people, when, if they were able to come to some agreement, it was likely to go through more surely than if it had to be considered for the first time by a body of fifteen. In the second case. where a Paper had to lie on the table, the fact that it went to a Committee would tend to prevent the possibility of some member of the Council rising and objecting while it was on the table, and thereby perhaps causing more delay than the examination in Committee itself would cause. These two things being so, the process naturally grew up of relegating to the examination of Committees practically all subjects of business, large as well as small. I have stated that the Act was a careful and elaborate one. One of its provisions is that the Council is obliged to meet every week in the year whatever business there may be to be done. The result is, therefore, that the longest actual holiday which can be obtained by all of its members is that somewhat maimed period of enjoyment known as "the clergyman's fortnight," one meeting being held on a Monday and the next on the ensuing Saturday week. No business whatever can be done without a quorum of five, however trivial the business may be, and there are certain cases in which a series of signatures by members of the Council are required to documents the importance of which scarcely seems to warrant such extreme closeness of attention.

I need not trouble the House with certain modifications which were made in the Council arrangements in 1876, and again in 1889. But in 1907 my noble friend the Lord President, who was then Secretary of State, was responsible for a Bill which your Lordships may remember, in which it was laid down that the Council should consist of not less than ten or more than fourteen members, and their salary was reduced from £1,200 to £1,000 a year. This, generally speaking, being the system under which we work, I must ask the House to consider what are the shortcomings which seem specially to attach to it, and what methods of reform it might appear wise to adopt. It was asked in 1858, and it has been asked on various occasions since, Why have a Council at all? The Foreign Office and the Colonial Office—the latter, of course, presenting the closer analogy—dispense with any such system of advice to the Secretary of State, and why, it is asked, should not the India Office do the same thing? In 1858 Mr. Roebuck, who belonged to that perennial class of politicians, of whom there are always a few in Parliament, whose life is spent in raising objections to almost everything that is proposed, took a strong view on this question. He spoke of the attempt that was being made to "patch up the rickety progeny of Lord Stanley"—that being the third Bill—and he prophesied confidently that in a very few years time the Secretary of State would be the sole governing power.

My own shorter experience is confirmed by the opinion of those who have enjoyed longer experience, and I say confidently that if I could I would not part with the Council of India. The India Office in its official departments is manned by a singularly able body of Civil servants, and so far as the conduct of the Office is concerned we should no doubt be as competent as other Offices to do our daily work. But it is by no means only a question of the assistance which the Council of India render to the Secretary of State by causing matters to come before him for decision in a more compact and concentrated form than they do in other Public Offices. It is also a marked advantage to the Secretary of State, supposing there to be some differences of opinion and a discussion on a particular subject in Council, to be obliged to present his case in a more accurate form than he probably might, do if he had only to argue the pros and cons of it with himself. And furthermore—and this is by no means the least important point—the existence of the Council greatly strengthens the position of a Secretary of State in his dealings with the Government of India, more especially, of course, when he is a new comer to the India Office. My own experience is a special one, because I happen to be on terms of almost life-long intimacy with the present Viceroy, I am well acquainted with his ways of business, as he is with mine, and so far as our relations are concerned I should not mind conducting business with the Government of India without any intermediary. But if the existence can be conceived of a Viceroy of a singularly independent or even arbitrary turn of mind, a Viceroy backed by a body of local experts of long practical experience, then I think the Secretary of State would need to be a Bismarck to hold his own in any controversy against so powerful a combination as that, and the only result, a disastrous result as I think, would be that India might be brought more often than it is within the cock-pit of Parliamentary politics. Therefore, as I have said, I for one, and I believe all those with similar experience would say the same, would not dispense with the Council of India. What is more, my own experience, and, so far as I know, that of others, would not lead me to ask relief from that financial control which the Act of Parliament empowers the Council to exercise.

In theory, of course, the Council might make the government of India under our Parliamentary system almost impossible by opposing the Government of the day and declining to carry out propositions to which the Cabinet attach supreme importance. But those are purely theoretical possibilities which need not alarm practical men, because it is, I think, the universal experience of people that when you collect a number of men practised in affairs round a table anxious to agree if they can, a method will always be found by which some reasonable result can be obtained. The proof of this appears to me to be that in other matters not financial, in all of which it is within the competence of the Secretary of State of the day to override his Council, it is only on the very rarest occasions that such a step has to be taken; and if any of the ex-Viceroys of India who have been in the same position with regard to their Councils happened to be in the House now, I think they would give similar testimony of their relations with their own Council. Therefore I shall certainly not ask your Lordships' House either to abolish the Council of India or to strip it of its former powers; but there are certain propositions, some domestic and some necessitating the amendment of the Act of Parliament, upon which I ought to say a word.

In the first place as regards the number of the Council. The existence of the present number seems to me to depend upon the necessity, if proved, for that universal activity of the Council which in its turn involves the perpetual action of Committees. Now, I venture to think that the Committee procedure is, in fact, only required on matters of moment. There are now seven Committees, and to man such a number as that it is obvious that a large Council is required. I shall propose, therefore, to make the procedure by Committee exceptional instead of, as it is now, invariable, and that I believe can best be done by attaching the various Members of Council to a particular Department in the office; not, of course, making them the controllers of the particular Department or in any way depreciating the position of the Secretary of the Department; but initiating a system by which they may co-operate for the particular work. And I should hope that thereby a great deal of business which now goes to Committees, and afterwards in a perfunctory way to the Council, might be done directly by the Department, sometimes, of course requiring the particular sanction of the Secretary of State, approached for the purpose, as he always is, through an Under-Secretary, but often in small matters on the responsibility of the Department itself.

I need not trouble the House with a description of the long and intricate method by which a file of papers travels backwards and forwards within the walls of the India Office, a rolling stone which on its way gathers sometimes a vast amount of moss. The process in subjects of the first magnitude is not too elaborate and may, indeed, be absolutely necessary, but in minor matters time is obviously thus spent which might quite well be spared; but I will not attempt now to elaborate any details of how Committees which would have to sit on many subjects should be specially framed for that purpose. It is said, I know, that if a Member of Council is thus specially attached to the Department the position of the permanent head of the Department, the Secretary, would thereby be lowered; but it is worth while noting that in our Military Department a system practically similar to that which I have mentioned obtains. The Military Secretary and the Military Member of Council are both soldiers of great eminence, both full Generals, and it is certainly not the case that co-operation between them is difficult, or that the position of either is compromised by the presence of the other.

One advantage which I should hope would follow is the initiation of far more direct communication between the different. India Office departments and the Government of India itself without the necessity of passing through the various processes which at present are followed, and I should hope thus to dispose of the complaints which we have many times received from India of delay which occurs in small matters. Well, this all points to a reduction of the number of the Council. For the actual work of the office, except for a consideration to which I will allude, a Council of eight would, I think, be adequate, answering so far as possible both in number and in the character of the work done to the different members of the Viceroy's Council in India. But it has to be noted that my noble friend behind me (Lord Morley) introduced, if he will allow me to say so, with great perspicacity the custom of getting two Indian gentlemen to sit on the Council here. That is a custom which I trust will be perpetually maintained; and it would sometimes, no doubt, be possible to attach an Indian gentleman of official experience to some particular department. However, it may not always be possible so to attach him; and the conclusion, therefore, is to my mind that the statutory limit which we shall probably desire to submit to your Lordships in a Bill will be the number of ten, which would leave a certain margin in case any particular Member of Council is not to be attached to a department.

There is a further reason why all that I say now must be regarded as somewhat provisional. Your Lordships are aware that an important Commission is sitting—a Royal Commission—under the presidency of Mr. Austen Chamberlain to inquire into matters relating to Indian finance, and at the close of the terms of reference to that Royal Commission you will find the words "The Commission is to report as to the suitability of the financial organisation and procedure of the India Office." Now, my Lords, I cannot in any way foretell what recommendations that Royal Commission may make. They have been good enough to inform me that they have not so far touched upon this question of India Office organisation. I, of course, should be anxious not to propose anything beforehand which would be incompatible with their recommendations and I have no doubt that they would be equally unwilling to propose any form of office reorganisation which would be incompatible in a general sense with the outline which I am now setting before the House. But it cannot be disputed that the Finance Department and the finance membership of Council, which has been the subject recently of a number of attacks—many of which I am confident are founded on absolute ignorance of the subject—it cannot be disputed that the position of the Finance Member or Members of the Council and the salary which should be paid to such Members may need differential treatment from that which we should propose to apply to those who sit on the Council in an ordinary capacity. I make that caution because it is desirable it should be understood that I am leaving out the question of India Office finance, at any rate in its detail, from these general propositions which I am laying down.

Then there arises the question as to what Members of Council ought to be paid. If I succeed in carrying out my project of reducing the numbers of the Council and effecting some method of attachment of each Member to a particular department, it will be obvious that such a Member will have to become, more than he is at present, a full-time public servant, and that he will not be able to combine the holding of his post, as Members are able to do now to a certain extent, with outside work. In those circumstances it would probably be right, I think, to revert to the salary of £1,200 a year instead of the £1,000 to which my noble friend altered the payment in circumstances, of curse, altogether different from those which will exist when our measure is put forward. And I hope it will be found that the membership of the Council here should be regarded in the future, not as the beginning of an Indian official's retirement, but as the final stage in his actual Indian work; and there is no reason that I can see why it should not accordingly count for pension as part of his Indian service. That, I think, would be a change which might sometimes help us to obtain a man whose services we should not otherwise get; and it seems to me to be reasonable and fair, as well as advantageous, to link more closely this particular service with the service which a man carries out in India.

Much has been said about interchange between the Indian service and service in the India Office. The word sometimes almost becomes a shibboleth with those who have seen, or at any rate heard of, the useful effects brought about by interchange, as for instance in the Foreign Office. Interchange can be applied sometimes, and is sometimes applied, to the great public advantage; but the suggestion which has sometimes been made that officials in India might come on to the Secretary of State's Council and then return to Indian activities, although there may be cases in which such a thing is possible, contains one objection which I am sure your Lordships will realise. It has been pointed out that in such a case a Member of Council waiting for further promotion in India at the hands of the Secretary of State would, or at any rate might, lose some portion of the complete independence which ought to characterise a Member of Council, because he might be, or consider himself to be, dependent for promotion on agreement with the Secretary of State of the day. That is an objection which, no doubt, carries some weight. In my view the system of interchange should be an elastic one, but it should not be general, either as regards Members of Council or even as regards secretaries and clerks within the office itself, although in the latter case it can no doubt be usefully applied on occasion.

But one consideration I do regard as very important—namely, that so far as possible when a man comes on to the Council his experience of India should be recent experience. That was obvious to the acute mind of Lord Palmerston so long ago as 1858, because in one of his speeches on the subject he said that "obsolete experience is worse than useless." Men talk of the "unchanging East," but, as a matter of fact, social and sometimes political changes in India pass with the rapidity of a kaleidoscope, and a man's knowledge of a number of local considerations of importance soon wears rather thin. Experience, of course, of a different kind—experience of character and probable motive—always remains valuable and does not wear out, but the actual experience of affairs must be tolerably recent if it is to be of great value. As it is now, of the Members of Council nine must have served for ten years in India, and they must not have left India for more than five years. Formerly the limit of possible absence from India was ten years but that was one of the points which was altered by my noble friend behind me to the public advantage, as I venture to think, for an interval of ten years must be in most cases too long. It might not be prudent to debar by Statute the Secretary of State from appointing a Member who had been absent for five years, but so far as the practice is concerned—and I do not hesitate to say that so far as I am concerned myself it is a practice I should desire to follow—the interval of absence should not, if possible, be more than two or three years.

My Lords, I have made it, I hope, clear that certain statutory changes would be required to carry out these reforms to which I have alluded. There is a great deal in the Act of 1858 which might be left to be done by rules in the Office instead of being imposed upon us by an Act of Parliament; but it is quite possible that it may be thought not worth while, as the Act is there with all its detail, to repeal small or unimportant details of such a kind except where their existence can be shown to be actually obstructive to business or likely to interfere with any general improvement in the way business is conducted. But I hope that public attention, so far as interest can be generally taken in such matters, will be directed to the subject, and I can only say that I myself shall welcome any criticism or any fresh ideas which those who are so interested may feel able to bring forward. The sole object which any of us can have in view is to improve, and so far as may be perfect, the machinery by which the daily and sometimes almost the hourly intercourse between those who represent the Imperial Parliament and those who control the actual government of our great Eastern Empire is carried on. Nobody on any side, I am glad to think, has any axe to grind in such matters as these, and no Party considerations of any kind enter into it. I hope, therefore, that general assistance will be forthcoming when I am able to produce a measure, as I hope to do next session, which as noble Lords will see will not be by any means of a long or elaborate character, to carry out the reforms which I have indicated.

On the single point that the noble Viscount opposite mentioned, that of any alteration in the relations between the Secretary of State and the Viceroy, except so far as those relations may be affected by possible changes in the procedure or methods under which the Council works I can assure the noble Viscount that none such are in contemplation. I have already stated that the relations between the Government of India and myself are of the most happy and harmonious character; and although, of course, suggestions may be made for improvement of methods at that end as well as this, we have no formal propositions of any kind to make which would alter the relations between the two Departments, the one in India and the other in Whitehall.


Might I ask the noble Marquess for an explanation upon one point, whether the attachment of a Member of his Council to a department of his Office will be of the same character as the attachment of a Member of the Viceroy's Council to a department of the Government of India? In other words, is a Member of the Council of India to be in charge of the department with power to pass orders on matters of ordinary importance, reserving matters of serious importance for the decision of the Secretary of State in Council?


I am sure the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not attempt to go into anything like detail. My general impression is that the relations between the particular department and the Member of Council would not be quite so close or so formal as those which exist in the case of the Viceroy's Council. The Secretary to the department would, of course, have precisely the same direct access to the Secretary of State that he enjoys at present. I should look rather to a system of general co-operation than to anything which could be described as the passing of orders, which the noble Lord has mentioned.


My Lords, it would manifestly be impossible to discuss now the very important statement which the noble Marquess has made, but there was one point to which he alluded to which I think your Lordships listened with great pleasure—that is, that the proposals of reorganisation solely concern the India Office, and that there is no intention of altering the statutory relations between the Secretary of State and the Viceroy. Although there has been no statutory alteration since 1858, in practice the relations between the Viceroy and the Secretary of State have unquestionably a great deal altered in recent years; and one point is frequently forgotten in connection with these matters—namely, that directly the telegraph was established it was inevitable there should be certain changes in practice. I heard with great satisfaction the noble Marquess say that there was no intention of making any statutory alteration in those relations.


I am sure the noble Marquess will not expect us to make any comment to-day on the interesting statement he has made. I quite share the feeling expressed by Lord Cromer. I gather that the changes which the noble Marquess has adumbrated cannot be introduced at this moment, and I will therefore not add anything except that we shall most carefully consider his statement.

House adjourned at Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter past Ten o'clock.