§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (The EARL OF CRAWFORD)
My Lords, I regret that my noble friend the Leader of the House is so much indisposed as to be unable to move the Second Reading of this Bill himself. I therefore submit the Second Reading of the measure to your Lordships. The Bill is in a form which is, I think, now familiar to everybody. It consists of two clauses. The first prolongs the life of the present Parliament; the second postpones for a year specified local elections.
As regards the first clause of the Bill, the present Parliament met early in 1911, and was subject to the Septennial Act. That was amended in the summer, and Parliament then sat upon a quinquennial basis. When the life of this Parliament was about to reach its conclusion in 1916, an extension of the Parliament and Registration Act was passed. This was repeated in the latter part of 1916, and twice during the year 1917. This, therefore, is the fifth extension of the Parliament elected in 1911. The first extenion was for eight months, the second and the third for seven months respectively, and the fourth for eight months, and the extension proposed under the present Bill is for six months. As the present Parliament expires in a fortnight, a further extension of its life seems imperative.
The second part of the Bill deals with local elections. I understand that the general view of municipalities is that there should be a postponement, and for a variety of reasons. Municipal and local government elections involve an immense amount of work; they would divert energies from administrative into electioneering channels, and as there are no essential municipal or local government problems at issue—for instance, none of the normal questions about expenditure of the ratepayers' money upon public improvements—there is really nothing material upon which municipal elections could or should be fought. Meanwhile an immense amount of valuable administrative work is being carried out by these local bodies through war committees of every description, and, above all, a new obligation has recently been placed upon local authorities—namely, the management of local food con- 871 trol work. I submit, therefore, to your Lordships that the case for the Bill is a good one, and I commend its Second Reading to the favourable consideration of the House.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Crawford.)
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
My Lords, I think that nothing marks in so extraordinary a degree the change which has come over Parliamentary affairs than the fact that a Bill of this magnitude can be moved by the noble Earl in so few words, and that your Lordships should show every sign of being likely to accept it after very brief debate. During certain periods when the noble Earl was serving his country elsewhere he was not present when very considerable exception was taken to the previous prolongations of Parliament. I believe that the calmness with which the present proposal has been received by many people is largely due to an expectation held out in another place that this would be the last extension that would be asked for. We cannot, of course, tie His Majesty's Government to that or to any other proposal in the present state of public business. But there is one point that I should like to make, and in it I believe that I shall have the sympathy of very many of your Lordships and of the public outside.
This prolongation—quite abnormal, and from many points of view to be regretted—is really given by Parliament solely in order to carry on, and if possible to complete, the business of the war, and I think that your Lordships will feel that it ought not to be made the machinery for bringing forward further and drastic changes of the Constitution, and for entertaining any more of those important proposals of change which have been showered upon us during the last two or three years, during the period after that at which the normal activities of Parliament should have come to an end. I am sure that the Government must realise that the most salutary provision in our Constitution is now passing from it. If the Government fail in any proposal, or in any measure, during the war, it is not to be desired that they should suffer for it in the ordinary way; at the same time, when no appeal is possible to the country, and when for an indefinite period the Government may expect power, they ought not to bring forward any of those great changes. I hope that before this debate 872 closes we may have an assurance from the noble Earl that the idea of the truce has not altogether evaporated. The fact that for one reason or another every subject of dominant importance to domestic politics has been put forward in the last two or three years ought not to be made the reason for further subjects, involving important organic changes and enormous demands on the public purse for purposes which are not connected with the war, being introduced in the period of the extention of Parliament which is now asked for.
In view of the two debates which have taken place in your Lordships' House I would especially ask also that the Government shall give us an assurance that no new Ministries will be created. The number of Ministries created has become—I do not wish to use the word "scandal"—a great incubus, and will become a great incubus to Parliament. If further Ministries are created, that will also cause an amount of heart-burning and trouble, and of difficult work, discussion, and legislation in order to bring back within normal limits the great bureaucracy which has grown up during the war. I do not think that this country is in the least aware that the number of members of the Government has been practically doubled during the war, and that the number of persons employed in clerical work by the Government has gone up to nearly 100,000.
If the Government, on the plea of the war, ask for a further extension, they ought to abstain from pressing Parliament, which is really in a moribund condition, further to add to the Ministries by yielding to the pressure which is put upon them from all directions. These are two very simple matters upon which I desire an assurance. Considering that we are now at a period when Parliament is accustomed to wind up its business and adjourn, we ought to be assured that we are only to be kept sitting in October and November because of the abnormal circumstances of the times, and that the Government will not use those abnormal sittings for adding further to what many of us regard as the great burdens which they have already put upon us.
§ LORD ARMAGHDALE
My Lords, I do not desire to criticise or oppose the Second Reading of this Bill, but I think it is right that I should inform the House that it is 873 my intention to move one or two small technical Amendments affecting Ireland in the Committee stage. It is not a matter which I can discuss on Second Reading, and I will therefore reserve what I have to say until the Bill is in Committee, which I presume will not be for a few days.
§ VISCOUNT CHAPLIN
My Lords, I rise merely to support what fell from my noble friend just now when he made an appeal to the noble Lord opposite to state on behalf of the Government that no further Ministries would be created, at all events without full opportunities for discussion by Parliament. I do not know whether the House realises the effect of the answer given to me by the noble Lord the other day when I asked for information as to the present cost of the Ministry of Food. So far as I have been able to gather from a further examination of the figures—and I say this in order to draw the attention, if I can, both of Parliament and of the public to what is going on at present in one particular Ministry—what it comes to is this. I do not know in the least what return you expect to get—we were not favoured with any information upon that point—but at the present moment the outgoings for which they are responsible in the last six months, according to the information I received in reply to my Question, are at the rate of something not much short of £400,000,000 per annum. One item alone that was given me by the noble Lord was £185,000,000—that was for the purchase of food. I know perfectly well that we were told—it has been stated in Parliament, I believe in both Houses of Parliament—that it was the hope, and that that hope was to be taken as something more than the expression of a pious wish, that the cost of that administration would be very largely met by margins arising from the sale of commodities. That may or may not be.
There is another very remarkable feature in connection with this Department—namely, that they have in their employ, as far as I can make out, something like 12,000 officials at the present time. If money is being spent at the rate of something approaching £400,000,000 a year, and we have no information about the returns coming back from those margins in the shape of commodities, I do not think anybody can be surprised that my noble friend should have expressed the opinion that no more Ministries ought to 874 be created at the present time, and the strong hope that he would receive some assurance to that effect from the noble Earl on behalf of the Government. I do not know whether the noble Earl is able to give any assurance of that kind at the present moment. If he is, I am quite sure that both Parliament and the public will be very glad to have it; but in any case, if he does not, he cannot be surprised if this question is raised again on a future occasion.
THE EARL OF CRAWFORD
I would remind your Lordships that had it not been for the repeal of the Septennial Act this would have been the first extension of the Parliament elected in 1911. The fact that five extensions have been necessary is, therefore, attributable to causes which varied the Statute dating back for many, many generations.
I have been asked for three assurances. The first was that the idea of the truce has not been abandoned. I do not know whether Lord Midleton cares to have my views upon that question, but I will state them. So far as I am concerned I believe the truce continues. So long as the Coalition Government continues with Labour, Liberal and Conservative members in it, I should have thought that the truce was in itself essential and inevitable. Lord Midleton asked that I should give an assurance that no further demands on the public purse apart from war outlays would be made during the ensuing six months. I can give no such assurance, and I observe with some interest that my noble friend Lord Midleton voted against the Government twenty minutes ago in an attempt to increase a charge upon the public purse. Lord Midleton asked that no new Ministries should be appointed. I cannot give any assurance to that effect. I hope, however, that your Lordships will bear that claim in mind when a Motion is submitted to this House, I think to-morrow, that a new Ministry shall be established. I cannot possibly give any pledge on that matter, and I do not think that under present war conditions it is conceivable that any responsible Minister would say that during the six months it may not become necessary to formulate some further engine of the Government machine to deal with some further emergency which for the moment we cannot foresee.
I regret, therefore, that I cannot give either of the pledges which were asked of 875 me. I should prefer to defer to another occasion, when probably a more suitable opportunity will occur for dealing with it, the point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Chaplin, about the recoupment of public moneys in the Ministry of Food. I have no figures by me at the present moment, and I should not like to commit my memory on that subject.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.