HL Deb 18 February 1919 vol 33 cc107-17

had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask the Lord President of the Council, having regard to the insufficient opportunity which will be available for the House of Commons to consider legislation before Easter, and to the wholly inadequate time which in recent years has been afforded to the House of Lords to deal with Government Bills later on, what measures it is the intention of the Government to introduce within the next few weeks in the House of Lords.

The noble Marquess said: My Lords, the Question which I have ventured to put upon your Lordships' Paper is an important one, but I do not intend to detain your Lordships long in respect of it, for many reasons, but not least because of the very important discussion which will arise upon the Motion of the noble and learned Lord who sits behind me, and with which I should be very sorry to interfere. Therefore I will be as brief as I possibly can be.

My Lords, there was a passage in His Majesty's gracious Speech which attracted a great deal of attention. It ran— A large number of measures affecting the social and economic well-being of the nation await your consideration, and it is of the utmost importance that their provisions should be examined and, if possible, agreed upon and carried into effect with all expedition. Those were words put into His Majesty's mouth, and the Government, in pursuance of that paragraph, proceeded to give notice of a certain number of Bills in another place. I am not going to discuss them, but perhaps your Lordships will allow me to read them out, so far as I have been able to make myself acquainted with them. There is a Re-election of Ministers Bill, which is already under discussion in another place, and I think an Aerial Navigation Bill. In addition there have been introduced into the House of Commons a Housing Bill, a Land Settlement Facilities Bill, a Ministry of Ways and Communications Bill, a Restoration of Pre-War Practices Bill, and an Air Forces Bill. Then, besides these, in the King's Speech itself there are promises of a Bill on what is popularly known as "dumping"; a very vague phrase about measures to increase and develop the industrial and agricultural output, which I suppose indicates legislation, although of what kind it is very difficult to say; a Land Reclamation Bill, and an Afforestation Bill. That is a pretty good programme to begin with, in fulfilment of the passage in the Speech which I have ventured to read.

Now, what chance have the Commons of dealing with those Bills before Easter? They have a very limited number of weeks—we are almost at the beginning of Lent—and they have, in addition to the programme which I have ventured to read to your Lordships, the financial business to the end of the financial year, which in this particular case must be of very great importance, raising issues of considerable magnitude. They have, further, the reconstruction of the Rules of their own House. Those have to be got through before Easter. Consequently, although I do not mean to say for a moment that the House of Commons will not be able to deal in part with some of the legislation that I have mentioned, it is perfectly clear that they are not going to deal with it in a very thorough manner.

Why should not your Lordships use some of your abundant leisure in dealing with part of this legislation? Why should not we help to carry it into effect, in the words of the gracious Speech, "with all expedition"? It is not that the Government think that your Lordships are incapable of taking your part in the debate, in the discussion, and in the decision of these measures, because there was a most eloquent passage in the speech of the Leader of the House at the end of his observations on the Address, in which he emphasised what the Leader of the Opposition had said as to the importance of the discussions in the House of Lords, and the great responsibility which in the face of present circumstances rested upon your Lordships. He spoke of the great expert knowledge of your Lordships and of the newness and inexperience of the House of Commons, and he said that a great responsibility rested upon your Lordships. How can we discharge that responsibility if no measures are ever submitted to us; and I say "ever submitted to us" because really the pretence of submitting Bills to us which has prevailed during the last few years is almost insignificant. Just at the end of the session, just before the recess, Bills one after another clatter into your Lordships' House, and then we have the usual observations from my noble friend, who always maintains a grave face when uttering them, about the pressure of public business being so great, about the time of the House of Commons having been so much occupied, and the absolute necessity that legislation which has taken weeks and months in that House should be got through this House in twenty-four or forty-eight hours. Those observations are always made to us. We make the customary protest, and nothing particular happens. We do what the noble Earl tells us to do; we hustle the legislation through, and there is no opportunity of taking our share of that responsibility, which he says rests upon us, of showing our expert knowledge.

I ask the noble Earl, in those circumstances, whether he will not at the beginning of this session—if I may use so disrespectful a phrase—turn over a new leaf and let us have some of the legislation to try and knock into shape here, instead of introducing it in the House of Commons. I do not, of course, say that all the Bills that I have read out are fit to introduce here in the first place, but some of them are Bills which your Lordships would deal with with great effect, and contribute very much to healthy legislation in respect of them. I refer to Bills like the Land Settlement Facilities Bill, the Ministry of Ways and Communications Bill, the Land Reclamation Bill, and the Afforestation Bill. Those are Bills which certain members of this House are eminently qualified to deal with, and I cannot help thinking that if the noble Earl will reflect he will come to the conclusion to which I have arrived, that some of that legislation ought to be introduced in this House. At any rate, I have the honour of putting the Question to him which stands in my name on the Paper.


My Lords, I do not quite accept my noble friend's account of the legislative activities of this House during the last one or two sessions of Parliament, in which I have been to some extent responsible for the conduct of business. So far from measures being introduced with what the noble Marquess colloquially described as "a clatter" in your Lordships' House, and your Lordships being pressed, or required, or ordered by me to discharge your duties in regard to them in the space of twenty-four hours, I recall that in the case of all the important measures in the last session of Parliament—in particular the Franchise Bill, the Food Production Bill, and the Education Bill—your Lordships, following your own inclinations and discharging your duties, as I thought, very fully and ably, were able to assign many days and, in some cases, weeks of time to the discussion of those measures; and I do not think that I ever paid a more deserved compliment to your Lordships' House than when, on their finally leaving these precincts, I was able to point to the valuable discussions that had taken place here and to the impress which your Lordships had left on the structure of the Bills as they went back to another place.

But, my Lords, I do not want to dispute on that point, and, broadly speaking, I am always glad to follow the noble Marquess's lead in depriving your Lordships of that abundant leisure of which he complains. I may say that upon that abundant leisure no noble Lord makes more constant or more successful encroachments than the noble Marquess himself. However, to-day he wants to know whether we can arrange or rearrange the legislative programme of the session so as to enable your Lordships, in the opening days of the session, to have more to do in respect of legislation. My noble friend has a considerable experience of both Houses of Parliament, but I confess I thought his observations showed some failure to appreciate what is the relative constitutional position of the two Houses in regard to legislation, and the practice which has been consistently observed during the whole time during which he and I have had seats in one or other of the Houses of Parliament.

It is easy to say in theory, Why should not such-and-such a Bill be introduced in the House of Lords rather than in the House of Commons? In practice there are certain limitations with regard to the introduction of measures, with which nobody is really more familiar than the noble Marquess himself. The first limitation is, of course, that it is the practice and the rule that measures which involve a charge upon the public funds—not perhaps an invariable rule, but a rule rarely broken—should be introduced in another place; and if the noble Marquess does not take my opinion upon the subject as carrying any weight, may I read this sentence from Sir Erskine May's "Parliamentary Practice," edition 1906, page 459— As a general rule, Bills May originate in either House, but the exclusive right of the House of Commons to grant supplies and to impose and appropriate all charges upon the people, renders it necessary to introduce by far the greater proportion of Bills into that House That is the first limitation, and it covers a good many of the Bills to which my noble friend referred.

The second limitation is that a Minister responsible for a Department, and for the preparation of Bills connected with his Department, is naturally anxious to introduce the Bills himself in his own person, to expound the policy of his Department and to ask the attention of Parliament to them; and in the division of Ministerial functions between the two Houses, in which I dare say the noble Marquess thinks we come off second best, the fact remains that not only in this Administration but in its predecessors, the majority of Ministers are in another place. In these circumstances it is not at all unnatural—indeed, it is inevitable—that the Bills should be introduced in the House where the Minister has a seat.

The third limitation is not only more stringent in its operation but is even more obvious. It is this—that on the whole it is more in accord with the spirit of our Constitution and with the division of functions between the two Houses that measures should, as a general rule, be introduced in the House of Commons rather than in the House of Lords; and the reason is clear. It is that the House of Commons is, in a sense quite different from your Lordships' House, a representative Chamber. In that House are seated Members fresh from the constituencies. In the elections by which they have been returned the Bills that are introduced to Parliament have been before the country; they are in many cases the result of pledges given at the General Election; and—I am stating no novel theory; I am stating an admitted fact—when the procedure of a General Election takes place the common expectation is that the Party returned to power shall fulfil its pledges by introducing in the People's House the Bills to which the consent of the country has been given, I may state the same proposition in another way. We all of us know the pivotal fact that it is in another place that the fates of Ministries are decided, and we do not possess, except in the last resort, and we certainly do not claim to exercise, that power, and it may very well be that a measure introduced in the House of Commons and fought out there in detail may involve the fate of a Ministry before it ever reaches this House. Therefore it would be inverting the ordinary and correct procedure in the case of Bills of first-class importance to begin here.

When I saw the noble Marquess's Question on the Paper I thought I would like to discover whether my noble friend Lord Bryce, who presided over a very important Conference last year with regard to the constitution of a new Second Chamber, had said anything about the functions of the two Houses in this respect. On looking up his Report I find it contains these words— Functions appropriate to a Second Chamber: 1. The examination and revision of Bills brought from the House of Commons, a function which has become more needed since on many occasions during the last thirty years the House of Commons has been obliged to act under special rules limiting debate. 2. The initiation of Bills dealing with subjects of a comparatively non-controversial character which may have an easier passage through the House of Commons if they have been fully discussed and put into a well-considered shape before being submitted to it. That seems to me to be a perfectly correct account of the normal function of the two Houses in regard to the initiation of legislation.

After all, my Lords, let us not forget that we are a Second Chamber and, therefore, a Chamber charged with special duties of revision, of correcting the mistakes, if you so like to describe them, of another place, and that the very functions which render us so powerful and useful in that respect are not necessarily the functions which qualify us to alter and to amend important measures of domestic legislation in their initial stages. I submit, therefore, that the general practice that we observe here is in accordance with the, spirit as well as with the traditional working of our Constitution. Subject to those considerations I believe that any Leader of this House is always most anxious, not merely to find material for your Lordships' activities, but to secure to this House a due share in the work, legislative as well as administrative, of the country.

How do I apply this to the Bills which are now before Parliament? The noble Marquess mentioned them with accuracy. There will be introduced into the House of Commons at no distant date the measures to which he referred—Ministry of Health, Ministry of Ways and Communications, Ministry of Supply, Housing, Land Settlement, Restoration of Pre-war Practices. The whole of these Bills involve charges on the public funds, and as such they are, naturally and almost inevitably, introduced for the first time in another place. The other consideration which I named applies to them with almost equal force. The noble Marquess named two Bills now before the House of Commons—the Re-Election of Ministers Bill, and the Aerial Navigation Bill—which should reach your Lordships' House with no very great delay. There remain a number of small measures which we hope to place before your Lordships' House at a very early date. The Lord Chancellor has three Bills which fall into this category. I do not say they are Bills of first-class importance, and I name them for what they are worth. There is, a Bill to make some detailed and technical amendment of the County Courts Act; a Bill to enable persons who wish to become notaries to count the period of war service as part of the statutory time; and a similar Bill relating to solicitors. There are also two small Bills which the Secretary for Scotland is anxious to bring before. Parliament, and which I feel sure he would have no objection to introduce in your Lordships' House. They are a War Charities Bill and an Intestate Husbands Estate Bill.

It is not usual, I believe, for the Colonial Office to introduce measures in your Lordships' House. There is no rule, but I saw my noble friend Lord Milner before coming here and sought his sympathy in the suggestion that an Emigration Bill, to which he attaches a good deal of importance, might be first introduced in this House. The draft of the Bill is not ready, but he is quite willing to accept the suggestion. I hope I have shown that we are doing nothing abnormal in the circumstances of the case, and the noble Marquees may rely upon me to exert my influence, such as it is, to give your Lordships that due voice in the initiation and carrying-on of legislation to which you are entitled.


My Lords, the noble Marquess behind me stated his case with great force, and, if he will forgive my saying so, with even more moderation than is characteristic of the Motions and Questions that he sometimes puts before your Lordships' House. The noble Earl opposite will forgive me if I recognise in his reply a number of almost official forms, some of which I may myself have used in the past The noble Earl mentioned several reasons for which a large proportion of the Bills of His Majesty's Government ought to, be, and in some cases must be, introduced in another place. That nobody denies. It is quite evident that such a measure as a Bill dealing with "dumping" must be introduced in the House of Commons, and this also applies to some other measures mentioned in the gracious Speech.

I confess that in my opinion the noble Earl somewhat overstated his case as to the necessity for introducing a certain class of measure in the House of Commons. It has not been by any means the practice that measures even of great importance which in the long run impose a public charge must make their first appearance in another place. I think there are a number of exceptions which could be quoted to that rule. The noble Earl was not quite accurate—it is a small point—in his mention of the Colonial Office practice, because I remember myself having introduced here the Union of South Africa Bill, which was a larger Colonial measure than any likely to be brought forward by the noble Viscount during the present session. I confess that the practice of which he spoke was new to me, although I was Colonial Secretary myself, as the noble Earl knows, for a number of years. The fact is that in this matter I am not able to be in complete sympathy with the noble Earl although I quite recognise his difficulties as Leader of the House.

When I sat on the Bench opposite there was a fourth reason, in addition to the three that the noble Earl mentioned, which prevented us from introducing in this House some measures which we would gladly have introduced here. Measures touching the landed interests, measures affecting vested interests generally, if they were introduced by a Liberal Government with its melancholy little minority on the Benches opposite, ran the risk of being so utterly transformed in the passage through your Lordships' House that they would be sent down to another place in an altogether unrecognisable condition. But that is not likely to happen now. We may assume that the measures introduced by a Coalition Government will be of so moderate and sober a type that they will find general acceptance in your Lordships' House, and with its continuing large majority of moderate opinion they are not likely to be backed about in the way ours might have been. Therefore, although I mark with much concurrence many of the admirable Radical sentiments which the noble Earl uttered respecting the functions of the second House, I cannot help feeling that in the present circumstances, composed as the Government is, it might have been possible to introduced several of the measures which have actually been mentioned, and certainly some of those which have not yet been introduced in another place, in your Lordships' House. The noble Earl says that Ministers naturally like to introduce their own important measures in the House of Commons, in which they sit. Why are there no more Ministers here? The composition of the Government is, of course, a question for the Prime Minister alone, but it did come as a great surprise to some of us that, with the exception of the noble Viscount, Lord Milner, there is not a single Minister in your Lordships' House in charge of an active Department.

Several NOBLE LORDS Lord Ernle.


And Lord Inverforth, Minister of Supply.


Yes. Unfortuntely we have not yet had the pleasure of seeing those noble Lords on the Government Bench, but I have no doubt they will find their way there before long. At any rate, I hope that those Ministers who are here will see that Departmental measures of their own are introduced here in the first instance. I cannot say that I am completely convinced by the noble Earl's reply, although he undoubtedly put forward a good general defence of the common practice. I should have expected from the Government, and from the noble Earl himself, a somewhat bolder defence of your Lordships' House and of its claims to conduct legislation.

It is quite true that last year we were able to devote a good deal of time to the Franchise Bill. We were living through a number of critical months, and there was every desire not to hamper His Majesty's Government in any way in the conduct of business. Your Lordships' House was pretty fully attended during the progress of the the Franchise Bill; not very well attended at other times, because there was a feeling that the general business of your Lordships' House was not always very serious; and there was also the feeling that there could be no question of raising anything like a serious voice in opposition to the Government, for no kind of Parliamentary crisis, even the sort of crisis which may take place here, ought to occur during the progress of the war. Now, unless I am mistaken, your Lordships' House is in a somewhat different temper. You want to take a serious, continuous part in the legislation of the whole session. I am certain that there will be very loud and deep discontent if it is found that many of the important measures of His Majesty's Government do not find their way here until the month of July, or possibly the month of August, with the probability of having to consider them in a hurried manner. I have felt bound to express my view, and I confess that I sympathise not a little with the protest of the noble Marquess.


My Lords, I was not here, unfortunately, to hear the opening remarks of the Ministerial reply, and I only rise to make one suggestion to the Leader of the House. It is this. The Government have promised us a Bill to buy land for ex-soldiers and ex-sailors, and I venture to think that that is a Bill which might with the greatest possible advantage be introduced and discussed in this House before it is taken in the House of Commons. I should like to commend that suggestion to the consideration of the Leader of the House.