HL Deb 15 April 1919 vol 34 cc345-59

Order of the Day read for resuming the debate on the following Report from the Select Committee appointed to consider proposals for an improvement, in the Procedure of the House—


  1. 1. That on Wednesdays, on which day there is no judicial sitting, the House shall sit, at 3.45 p.m., when prayers will be read and private business taken, and that public business shall commence at 4 p.m.
  2. 2. That the same rule shall apply to all days, and not Wednesdays alone, after the judicial sittings of the House have terminated in the latter part of the session.
  3. 3. That the introduction of Peers, and private business, shall, as far as is practicable, be taken on Wednesdays, in order to enable public business to commence as early as possible on the remaining days of the week. That publicity he given in the Orders of the Day to the intention of a Peer to take his seat in the above circumstances, with a view to the general convenience.
  4. 4. That on every day other than Wednesday (subject to the condition 346 named in 2) the House shall meet as now at 4.15, but that, in the event of there being no private business, public business shall commence at that hour.
  5. 5. That, in the event of a Debate being adjourned until a subsequent day, it is desirable, as a general rule, that, the adjournment shall not be moved until 8 p.m.
  6. 6. That, in the event of a Debate being adjourned over dinner, an interval of 1¼ hours shall be allowed for the purpose.
  7. 7. That it shall be in the power of any Peer who asks a question for the purpose of information only, and not with a view to making a speech or to raising a debate, to indicate his intention by prefixing an asterisk to his question when he hands it in to the Clerk at the Table. Such action on his part will not deprive the House of any of its existing privileges, but will be for the general convenience in the arrangement of business.
  8. 8. That the House be invited to exercise a stricter vigilance in the enforcement of its own Standing Orders, notably Standing Order No. XXVII, which prohibits any Lord from speaking twice to any question or proposition except the mover of a Motion in reply, unless it be to explain himself in some material point of his former speech (no new matter being introduced), and then only after first obtaining the leave of the House.


My Lords, it may be that some of your. Lordships will expect me to say a few words on this subject, inasmuch as I was a member of the Committee whose Report is now before you, and as a speech that I made in your Lordships' House a little while ago was in part the origin of the proposals that have now been submitted. I must apologise for not having been present when the Report of the Committee came before this House less than a week ago. A good deal of my afternoon had been spent in hurried rushes from the Foreign Office to your Lordships' House, and on the last occasion I only arrived in time to meet my fellow Peers leaving the Chamber.

The proposals of the Committee were explained and defended on that occasion by more than one noble Lord who served on the Committee—notably, Lord Lans downe and the noble Marquess who leads the Opposition. They found a critic, a somewhat severe critic, in Lord Balfour of Burleigh. Anticipating that that noble Lord, who has great experience and authority in this House, might be a formidable opponent, I had endeavoured to secure his presence on the Committee in the first place, and it was a matter of great regret to me that he was unable to serve. I read his criticism with the weight that must attach to anything that comes from him, and really it amounted to little more than this—that he found fault with our proposals because they are so small. I wonder what the noble Lord would have said had the proposals been large. I can conceive that his attack would have been much more vehement. The proposals are small, and the Committee did not feel justified in submitting anything on a more extensive scale to the House at the present moment, because they know how extremely sensitive this House is of the privileges it enjoys, and with what suspicion it regards any diminution of its prerogatives.

In consequence of Lord Balfour's intervention, the discussion was adjourned to a later date, at which I might be present, and I should not have taken the adjourned discussion this afternoon had Lord Balfour desired a further postponement. I placed myself in communication with him this morning and offered to resume the discussion, if he desired to be present, after Easter, but he said—and there I agree with him—that he thought it would be to the general advantage and convenience that the matter should be settled one way or the other to-day. It is in these circumstances, my Lords, that I am addressing you now.

I said that the changes which are proposed are inconsiderable, but they are, I think, not altogether without value. In any ease they were as far as the members of the Committee were prepared unanimously to go. There is, first, the question of the gaining of time. It is true that we do not gain very much. On Wednesdays and on certain other days later in the session when the House is not sitting for judicial business we shall gain half an hour, and on other days we shall gain, in all probability, about a quarter of an hour. That is not much but it is something, and I anticipate that if we are a little more strict and regular about the hours of our adjournment we may possibly gain something at the other end, too. Lord Balfour of Burleigh, criticising the inadequacy of these proposals, said, "Why do you not meet on four days in the week, instead of trying to add a quarter of an hour here and half an hour there?" The objection to meeting four days in the week has never sprung from me. I am quite prepared, if ever your Lordships desire it, to sit four days in the week. But what happens? I know it through the ordinary channels of communication. If ever I propose to have a sitting on a Friday I am told that is inconvenient to noble Lords because they are in the habit of leaving London on that day. If, on the other hand, I propose that the House should meet on a Monday I am told it is equally inconvenient to them because they have not yet succeeded in getting back. Therefore it is a little difficult to meet both strains of criticism. As a matter of fact we do meet on four days in the week whenever a general desire is expressed in that sense, and I am rather inclined to think that what we want is not so much an additional day in the week on which to meet (because it is in our power to take it) as a better adjustment and economy of the time on the days when we are sitting. That is the object we have in view in these proposals.

The second proposal is that of Questions to which it is suggested an asterisk should be prefixed. The question was put, I think by Lord Balfour of Burleigh, as to what will be the good of this new category of Questions? I think the good, the advantage, of them, not perhaps great but still sufficient to justify an experiment being made, is this. In the first place, in the case of the putter of the Question, with whom the initiative and the responsibility rest, it is an indication on his part that it is his desire to put the Question for the purposes of information only, usually on matters of fact, and that he does not contemplate occupying any large portion of the time of your Lordships' House. Secondly, it will be a decided convenience to members of the Government Bench, because they will have the corresponding indication that in so far as the putter of the Question is concerned he does not mean to embark upon an extended discussion. Thirdly, it will be a convenience to the House, because members looking at the Order Paper—instead of the complete inability which now exists to know when matters are coming on, how long they are likely to take, and when the individual Question in which they are interested will be reached—will have this amount of guidance, that so far as the Question is concerned to which an asterisk is prefixed there is the reasonable presumption that it will not take much time. No one is injured by this. The House at large, and individuals in the House, will be benefited. When I say that no one is injured. I should add that it is quite clear in these circumstances that every member of the House will retain the full amount of liberty he now enjoys.

Let me suppose that a Question with an asterisk is put in a sentence, and that it is replied to in a sentence. Nobody in this House, least of all the Leader of the House, can prevent any noble Lord putting a supplementary Question, or even, if he chooses, raising a discussion. He must be the judge of that; the House must be the judge of that. The advantage will be that there will be the general indication—and I hope a general understanding on the part of the House—that Questions so introduced shall not be made the subject of prolonged debate.

Upon the subject of these Questions, Viscount Midleton made au alternative suggestion. He said, Why do you not adopt the House of Commons practice and have Starred Questions, which are Questions not put orally and following upon which nothing is admitted except the reply. I should not myself be at all averse from that suggestion. The reason it was not recommended by the Committee is this. It is no good having Questions of that sort unless you are able to group them together and put them at the beginning or end of the proceedings, as they do in another place. Why cannot you do that Because under the Standing Orders it is not possible. Questions have to be taken in this House in the order in which they appear on the Paper, and the Committee did not think it worth while to come to your Lordships' House with any proposal for an alteration of the Standing Orders for such an object as that.

The second reason for not proposing it is this. With Questions in another place, if any attempt is made to deviate from the general understanding the Speaker rises in the Chair and has full authority to correct and rebuke the transgressors. Here, my Lords, as I once before remarked, no similar authority is vested in any individual in your Lordships' House, not even in the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack; and even if you hail Starred Questions at the beginning there is nothing whatever to prevent—because there is no authority which exists—noble Lords continuing to exercise their present rights. That was the reason why we were unable to follow the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Midleton.

All I would say in conclusion is this. I suggest that it is worth while to try this modest experiment. It can do no harm to anybody; it may conceivably, be of some advantage. I believe myself that it will, and, apart from the very moderate changes in our procedure which are suggested, I think the advantage of this Report is that it will call the attention of the House in a definite and formal way to its own Standing Orders. The real fault of our procedure here is our steady and studied reluctance to obey our own Standing Orders. It is with a view of enforcing a more consistent deference to them that Standing Order No. XXVII has been definitely alluded to in this Report. It may be that at a later date we may be called upon by the House to consider more extensive changes. These, I think, may do some good, and it rests with your Lordships' House more than with any individual Peer, to see what use can be made of them, and what advantage can be derived therefrom.


My Lords, no one can complain of the action of my noble friend, who had a statement to make on the Report of this Committee, which he did so much to call into being, that he has selected this afternoon to make that statement, to which we have listened with great interest. I think, perhaps, it would have been more useful if his statement had been made on an afternoon when it was likely that a great many of your Lordships would be in attendance. My noble friend has explained, and his explanation I am sure satisfied all of us, that upon the last occasion when this matter was under discussion he was not able to be present. He is a man of many engagements; and we quite understand. But the result has been that the debate has been broken up. The statements of Lord Balfour of Burleigh and Viscount Midleton were made in the absence of the Leader of the House, while the speech of the Leader of the House has been made in the absence of Lord Balfour of Burleigh and the noble Viscount.

I do not know whether there is very much to be said on this Report. It is not a very important document. I agree with it as far as it goes, but personally I regret that it does not go a good deal further, and especially in regard to the time of the House. My noble friend has referred to the difficulties in persuading the House to sit on Fridays and Mondays. May I suggest to him that the difficulty principally arises because that is not a fixed engagement of your Lordships. If after everybody has made their arrangements to do their business in the country on Fridays, or to do their business in the country on Mondays, there is ordered a sitting of your Lordships' House on those days, it does amount to a very great inconvenience. I do not think that your Lordships are open to the charge that you are always anxious to be away from London at the week-ends in the pursuit of pleasure. Most of us are away from London at the week-ends in order to do a great deal of business which awaits us in the country. Everybody who knows anything about the subject knows that most of your Lordships are very busy men indeed, and if we have made arrangements to visit our estates, or to see our agents, or to do our county business on the Friday or on the Monday, and suddenly there is a meeting of your Lordships' House on either of those days, there is, as I say, a great inconvenience. The same inconvenience would not arise if it were a fixed arrangement, and if one of those days were habitually set aside for debates in your Lordships' House. That used to be the case, not on Fridays but on Mondays. Up till quite recently Monday was a regular day of meeting in this House.


So was Friday, but not Wednesday.


My noble friend corrects me. The arrangement was that the House sat on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Wednesday was a day off. When the House of Commons changed to a Wednesday sitting your Lordships shortly afterwards followed suit, and made Friday occupy the place which Wednesday had formerly occupied, so that we sat on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and there was no sitting on Friday. But we always sat on Monday, and I venture to think, looking at the programme of business which awaits your Lordships this session, that we shall have to meet upon Mondays. I think, therefore, that it would be worth while that the noble Earl should consider whether we should not, if not after Easter, at any rate after Whitsuntide, have a sitting on Mondays. I think that we will have some difficulty in getting through the work before us unless some such change is made.

As regards the other suggestions, I am afraid that I am rather disappointed at our only having, after these great efforts, obtained a quarter of an hour more for the ordinary days of sitting. It was hardly worth while making so much to do in order to gain a quarter of an hour more time. The difficulty of course, as the noble Earl knows very well, is to fit in our sitting with the judicial sittings of your Lordships' House. That is a difficulty; but I think it ought not to have been one, if I may venture to say so in the presence of noble and learned Lords. I am not sure that there are any noble and learned Lords present, and if not I must say it in their absence. I think that it is a difficulty which ought to have been got over in a session of very great legislative occupation. In such a session surely there ought to have been a possibility for the House of Lords to meet as early as 4 o'clock. Formerly the judicial sittings used to begin a little earlier than they do now, but not so long ago the noble and learned Lords, for whom we entertain great respect, found that it was not convenient to start quite so early in the morning, and no doubt that makes it additionally difficult that they should adjourn a quarter of an hour earlier in the afternoon. I do not know whether it would be disrespectful if I were to suggest that noble and learned Lords might revert to the older practice without an undue strain, so that then one branch of the Legislature of the United Kingdom might be allowed to meet as early as 4 o'clock. That does not seem to me to be at all an exaggerated claim. I do not suggest that we should do so now. The noble Earl's Committee goes as far as we could persuade noble and learned Lords to go for the moment, and I do not know that there is any advantage in pressing the matter further at the present time. But I do not despair. I am convinced, as people come to consider it, that they will realise that we ought to sit at 4 o'clock as a fixed arrangement. That is much more satisfactory than to sit at a quarter past four. The quarter of an hour's gain, on Wednesday I think it is, is a very doubtful concession, because the very uncertainty of the particular time when you sit—that is to say, not having the same fixed time for each day—will, I am afraid, militate against a full attendance of noble Lords.

As regards Starred Questions, there again I am in agreement with the noble Earl the Leader of the House. I think it is worth while trying the experiment, but I am quite sure that it will only succeed if it is carried out in the spirit which the noble Earl suggested—namely, that not only the noble. Lord who puts the Question should not make a speech, but that the Minister who replies to it should not make a regular speech, but should do no more than answer the Question, and that other noble Lords if they wish to put. supplementary questions should act with similar self-restraint. They should be questions and not speeches. Of course, that is a matter for noble Lords, who can do exactly as they like. Indeed, it would be impertinent to suggest that they should take any other course than they think it is their duty to take, but unless they adopt the line indicated the only effect of the arrangement will be that the noble Lord who knows most about the subject will be the only noble Lord who is not to make a speech. That would be so ridiculous that the thing would break down.

May I say, in conclusion, that I listened with humility to my noble friend's criticisms of the conduct of business in your Lordships' House. No doubt, we are not perfect, but I think that on the whole we do our business admirably. I do not believe that my noble friend differs materially from me on this point, but it would be a mistake if it were thought outside that your Lordships were dissatisfied with the conduct of our business. On the whole we have an extremely business-like method of carrying out the legislative functions which are entrusted to us. Personally I agree that sometimes the Standing Order about relevance might be more closely attended to, and also the Standing Order which prescribes that no noble Lord is to speak more than once to a particular question; but on the whole, considering the great mass of business that has to be done, and considering the immense complexity of it, I believe that every one will concede that the deliberations and decisions of your Lordships' House are on the whole very satisfactory, and it would be a pity if any one saw that so great an authority as my noble friend the Leader of t he House thought otherwise.


My Lords, I had no idea what views the noble Marquess behind me was going to express on some of these matters. I simply rise to say that on one point I hope that the noble Earl opposite will consider what has fallen from the noble Marquess—namely, regarding the propriety, and I think the great advantage, of returning somewhat later in the session to the custom of sitting four days a week. The habit of three days a week is a recent one. The noble Marquess explained the practice in the past with perfect accuracy. He did not add, what of course is the case, that the unwillingness to sit on Friday and the lesser unwillingness to sit on Monday have arisen from the quite modern custom of leaving London for the end of the week. In the old days nobody thought of going out of London for Sunday except by a rare chance. Therefore it was inure convenient to take the interval of rest in the middle of the week, on Wednesday. But even now, if people find -it necessary for one reason or another to go away from London on Friday, unless they go to quite the remote parts of the kingdom, it surely ought to be possible for them to reach London by 4 o'clock on Monday, supposing they desire to attend your Lordships' House.

And therefore I hope that when business becomes urgent later in the year the noble Earl who leads us will consider whether it is not desirable to make Monday a regular sitting day. I am in particular agreement with what the noble Marquess said, that it is the uncertainty of not knowing what the sitting days are which is infinitely more inconvenient to noble Lords than the regular addition of the fourth clay. It often happens late in the year that we are suddenly told that we have to sit on a Friday—sometimes even, in matters of extreme moment and urgency, on a Saturday—although fortunately that is rare—but very often on a Monday. I think, if the noble Earl would agree to make Monday a sitting day at some later stage of the session, he will find it is of general service to the House, and also that it will not be found to add unduly to the burden which is placed on the Front, Bench opposite.

On the general question, I am glad that these minor changes are about to be made. With regard to what fell from the noble Marquess on the subject of Starred Questions, I do not hope for a great deal from them, but they may have a certain effect of bringing about a state of things which will make the asking of Questions in the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Hindlip, asked his Question to-night tolerably frequent. It certainly would be a convenience to Ministers to know that a Question can be simply put and simply answered. But it is also quite true that, in training the replies to Questions of that sort, it will be necessary for noble Lords opposite to stick closely to business, and not introduce matters of argument into the replies which they make. There will otherwise be a risk that a debate may be started which will run away with those who take part in it. But on the whole I think-the proposal is decidedly a sound one, and it is quite possible that a habit may grow up of treating these Questions precisely in the way that they ought to be treated.


It is only by leave of the House that I can reply to the question put to me. The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, pointedly urged your Lordships to be more scrupulous in your deference to Standing Order No. XXVII, which limits the right of speech to a single occasion. I was greatly shocked after that appeal to find that the first transgressor was the noble Marquess who sits next to him, because the noble Marquess is sufficiently, a master of our procedure to know that he exhausted his right of speech on the first stage of this debate last week.


No. The same point had occurred to me, but I remembered that I then spoke on the Motion for the adjournment of the debate.


I consulted the authorities at the Table, and I may have been mistaken, but I was under that impression; and I confess I noticed with keen satisfaction that a partner in the many transgressions that I have committed was the noble Marquess himself. However that may be, the question he put was whether later on in the session it might not be desirable to have Monday sittings. I think very likely that will be the case, and my recollection of the important Bills that we have had up during the last two years—the Reform Bill, the Land Bill, and the Corn Production Bill—is that on those occasions we almost always have had Monday sittings. With the pressure of business that is likely to conic before us particularly in the case of very important Bills, I expect that will become our procedure. Anyhow, the suggestion is one which I shall carefully bear in mind.


My Lords, as no noble Lord has risen from the back benches, perhaps I may be allowed to offer one or two observations; because the noble Earl, in inviting me to join this Select Committee—I am giving away no confidence in saying this—invited an expression of opinion from the back benches. I disclaim any right to speak for the back benches, and I will only speak for myself. I expect that, having been a member of this Committee, I may be taken by the House to have given a general assent to its recommendations. These recommendations fall into two parts. With regard to the time which it is proposed to give at the beginning of each session, there really does not seem to be a very great deal in it, but I hope that it may be useful, and I believe that a great many Peers would sooner have twenty minutes tacked on to the beginning of the proceedings than twenty minutes added to the end. Because for some reason or other, having had certain experience of whipping in this House, there seems to be in all arrangements outside—the nature of which I will not attempt to specify—a disposition on the part of some noble Lords to leave the House about twenty-five minutes past six. The next batch appears rather anxious to leave about twenty-five minutes or half-past seven. Those who wish to get away at the comparatively early hour of half-past six we need not take into account. But perhaps the views of several noble Lords would be met if they could gain that coveted quarter of an hour between half-past seven and a quarter to eight. I do not suppose that what I am saying will be reported, so it really does not matter talking confidentially about these things.

There is one point about the recommendations of this Committee which is important, and it is particularly important because the noble Earl who leads the House added a suggestion at the end which might be interpreted into saying that this was only the thin end of the wedge. The noble Earl, I understood, said that the idea of the Starred Question should be tried as an experiment, and that at some future time, if it is very successful, we might possibly still further consider the alteration of our procedure with regard to Questions.


No; my observation was not made with a limitation to that part of the subject. I was explaining that these proposals were in their general compass very small and inconsiderable. I was saying that the House might conceivably be dissatisfied with them, and the House might itself decide at a later stage—as indeed the noble Marquess suggested—to proceed on larger lines.


I quite understand the noble Earl. Although this proposal with regard to Starred Questions is apparently innocuous, it no doubt does alter—a self-imposed limitation, I admit,—the freedom which we have always had. I put it to the noble Earl—and this I say with the deepest conviction—that the One great advantage of the House of Lords, both inside as we know it and outside as the general public know it, is that, it is as unlike the House of Commons as it can possibly be. I say it is different, not better or worse although I may have my own views about that. The noble Earl appears to have suggested that the matter of Starred Questions should go further, but I for one sincerely hope it will do nothing of the kind, because in the House of Lords we have a power of doing what everybody has been always trying to do in the House of Commons ever since that House was started, and that is to ask a Question and make a speech about it at the same time. We have nobody here to prevent us from doing that; it is our most cherished privilege; and for my part I will be no party to surrendering that privilege in any one degree. That is why I look upon this new procedure which we are apparently about to adopt, and which I probably will agree to, with a certain amount of misgiving. The defence to it is that after all "it is only a little one." It is sincerely to be hoped that it will not be carried any further. It is doubtful if the general public outside really take a careful and intimate and affectionate view of our actual procedure in here. But what the public outside do know about the House of Lords is that it is the one place in the kingdom where we have absolutely free speech, and where one can say what one likes without I being called to order. That is a privilege which has never been abused in this House, I and I hope we shall not be led from one step to another to impose limitations which will do away with the whole spirit and character of the debates of this House.


My Lords, I do not rise to take any part in this debate, for which the recency of my arrival among your Lordships would disqualify me; but I rise because of an observation made by the noble Marquess. I had been summoned from the House, but the noble Marquess's observation has been supplied to me. I understand that the noble Marquess suggested that the Law Lords might at least have usefully considered whether they could not revert to an older practice under which they began their daily sittings at an earlier hour. I hope that before the noble Marquess makes that proposal in a definite form he will discuss the matter with me and some of my colleagues, because I think we could satisfy him that it would not be a very reasonable request to address to them. There never was a time, I think, in the history of our Courts when so many complex and difficult problems are arising in litigation which require decision in this House. The events of the war themselves are so wholly without precedent, and the adoption in the course of the war of a temporary legal code has raised a hundred questions in respect of which no authority or precedents exist, that decisions of the Final Court are almost monthly invoked. Those circumstances alone have added a burden to the labours which the Law Lords have had to sustain. I hope it will not be supposed that I should not be willing to support any effort which my physical strength enables me to, but your Lordships will readily appreciate that if I began sitting as a Judge at half-past nine and worked till 3 o'clock in labours which demand every particle of ability and attention which one possesses, and then were to address myself, as is and would be my duty, to extended sittings upon the Woolsack, I should be sitting here with only an interval of an hour and a-half from half-past nine, it may be, until 8 o'clock and in some cases until later, which would entail great physical strain, and I am sure your Lordships would wish to consider that difficulty before coming to any such conclusion.


I certainly should not venture to make any proposals to your Lordships on this subject without availing myself of the honour of the consultation which my noble and learned friend has been good enough to suggest.

On Question, Report of Select Committee adopted.