HL Deb 20 July 1914 vol 17 cc22-4

My Lords, before your Lordships take up the important public business which is down for discussion to-day, I wish to ask two Questions of my noble friend the Leader of the House with reference to a matter of extreme importance which has arisen only to-day. I do not ask the Questions with a desire to initiate a discussion; on the contrary, I rather hope there will be no discussion on the general policy of the step which has been announced to us. But there are two considerations in connection with it to which I desire to call my noble friend's attention, and with respect to which I should like to be relieved by his assurances. The first is the question of the responsibility of His Majesty's Ministers for the step which has been taken in calling together the Conference which is to assemble to-morrow. The announcement of this consultative body was made in two or three organs of the Press—I saw it myself in The Times—but not generally made this morning; and, of course, it was made with no real authority as to the conditions on which the consultation was summoned.

I have been told that in another place a statement has been made by the Prime Minister, but this House has no official knowledge of what has been said there. I understand that the Prime Minister was silent on the question of Ministerial responsibility for the step which has been taken. His Majesty has commanded certain persons to attend to consider certain questions to be put before them. Nothing was said of the concurrence or the advice of His Majesty's Ministers in respect of the step so taken. I think it will be generally conceded that no act of State of this kind could have been taken without not merely the concurrence but without the advice of His Majesty's Ministers. It is not sufficient that His Majesty's Ministers should acquiesce in such a step, and by acceptance of the summons signify approval of the act. It is their act, whoever initiated it, inasmuch as it is an act of the Crown done on their responsibility. I am sure my noble friend will reassure us on that point, and settle this doubt as to the responsibility of His Majesty's Ministers with regard to the step taken.

The next matter on which I should like to be reassured is as to the appointment of this body. I am afraid this step will be viewed by the world at large as something like a supersession of Parliament. Of course, that cannot be. But it is true that it looks a little like a slur on the ability of Parliament at all events to lead to a successful issue the difficulties which have arisen. Seeing how badly some of us here talk occasionally of the House of Commons, and what the estimate of this House is as expressed sometimes in the other House, it is perhaps not surprising that there should get about a notion that Parliament is a body which has lost its efficacy and its powers, and this act of bringing into existence this consultative body may be regarded by the ignorant as a supersession of Parliament itself. I am sure my noble friend will tell me that whatever this body may do is, of course, subject to the limitation that the authority of Parliament remains supreme, and that the last word which will be spoken will be spoken by Parliament. These representative parties interested in the subject under dispute, with Mr. Speaker at their head, will constitute an important and authoritative body, and their conclusions will command the greatest respect and almost demand acceptance. Still, the right of Parliament to re-examine every conclusion arrived at, and, still more, the right of Parliament to pronounce a final opinion of its own with respect to the matters deliberated upon, must always be reserved. These are the two points which I think it is desirable should be made clear at once. If I am rightly informed, nothing was said on either point elsewhere, and the other House is reduced to that position that it is impossible there to discuss anything. But here we have that liberty, and with a plea for forbearance for exercising that liberty I put my Questions to my noble friend.


My Lords, I am sure my noble friend behind me will forgive me and I am confident that my action will be approved by the House generally if I only reply in the very briefest terms to the two Questions which he has put to me. I entirely agree with him that it cannot be necessary in a matter of this kind to engage in anything like a general debate on these two points which my noble friend, as a faithful guardian of constitutional practice, desires to bring before our notice. As regards his first Question, I can say simply that there has been no abrogation whatever of Ministerial responsibility and no departure whatever from constitutional practice, in the circumstances in which His Majesty has summoned representatives of various parties and interests to meet and consider these supremely important questions. And on my noble friend's second Question, I can assure him with equal confidence that there has not been, and, as he himself admitted, cannot be, any intention to supersede the authority of Parliament in this matter, and no such result can conceivably follow. The noble Marquess opposite (Lord Lansdowne) will remember the former constitutional conference in which he and I were both concerned. It was then, I think, equally understood and made clear in that case, too, that there could be no suggestion that those who took part in it claimed any rights or made any pretensions contrary to the supreme authority of Parliament. Precisely the same, no doubt, will be the case in this instance; and I hope, therefore, that the short answer which I have given to my noble friend will be completely reassuring.