HL Deb 20 February 1919 vol 33 cc231-54

LORD BURNHAM rose to ask His Majesty's Government what changes they will propose in the practice and procedure of this House in order that Bills for social and industrial reconstruction may be adequately considered and passed into law.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have set down this Question on the Notice Paper with the intention of enabling the House to do justice to itself as the oldest and most honourable legislative body in the world, in what is hopefully and rather grandiloquently styled the era of social regeneration which is now opening before us. There can be no question of the personal competence of this House. Its man-power is overwhelmingly strong. I do not believe that in any other Legislative Assembly you could find so much expert knowledge in every sphere of national activity and in every department of national life. At the same time I believe that the procedure under which we act makes legislative efficiency impossible.

On the first night of the session the noble Earl who leads the House made a most eloquent speech, and I will quote from it. The speeches of the noble Earl are often worth quoting from, and I wish to read to your Lordships from the concluding Paragraph of that particular speech. The Leader of the House said— I am sure that in the building of that greater Britain your Lordships will play a prominent part, and see that the foundations are well laid, and that upon them is reared a super-structure which will not merely be fair to the eye but will endure. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, in his maiden speech in this House, made an appeal of the same sort to your Lordships—to give your expert knowledge in aid of the cause of social reconstruction. I do not question the sincerity of those noble Lords, any more than I question the solemnity of their utterances; but a great institution cannot live on solemnities. What I want to know is whether these are mere phrases, or whether, to use an ordinary expression, they mean business.

It is no doubt true that the procedure of this House has been well adapted to its past traditions; it has depended upon that spirit of conciliation and consideration as between ourselves which has never been found wanting. It is historic in its traditional dignity and distinction, but I venture to say that it is prehistoric in its cumbrousness and its inutility. I do not suppose that your Lordships often turn to the Standing Orders of this House. All of them have an archaic picturesqueness about them which has its charms, but as for making for any sort of efficiency in a legislative machine they are absurdly out of date and of no account. The very style under which they are known, "Remembrances for Order and Decency" in the conduct of affairs, rather stamps them as being not wholly suited to the necessities of our day. They provide for all sorts of things. They provide against "asperity of speech"; they forbid "personal, sharp, or taxing speeches," which last they say are to be avoided—whatever a "taxing speech" may be; I do not know whether it is taxing the patience of the House or of the public. Then it is said, "No conversation shall be carried on between the Woolsack and the Throne, and Lords wishing to converse are to go to the Royal Gallery." I do not know whether that is often observed during speeches which are made here. But there is one whole Standing Order which seems to me to open up great promise for the proposals which I shall submit to your Lordships shortly. In Standing Order XL we read this— To have more freedom of speech, and that arguments may be used (pro and contra), Committees are appointed, sometimes for Bills, sometimes to facilitate and agree of great businesses, either of the whole House, or of particulars; And it is, of course, Committees of particulars which I wish to advocate later.

I am bound to say that I think your Lordships are vitally concerned in the efficiency of this Assembly. Perhaps it is not a bad thing to ask, in the words of the Greek play, where we stand and what we are going to do. We all know we are sitting, or standing, under the shadow of doom. The "dread shears" of the sisters are cutting almost the last threads of our existence, if you judge not by casual talk but by the official declarations of the leaders of both Parties of the Coalition in the other House. I heard Mr. Bonar Law pledge himself and the Party which follows him to the drastic reconstitution of this Chamber; therefore, if we do not show that any legislative efficiency resides here, it is pretty certain that your Lordships will not play a very important part in the Second. Chamber, whatever it may be, which is to be created in this country.

It is no good your Lordships deceiving yourselves with the idea that what is proposed is the reform of the House of Lords. I had a seat on the Second Chamber Conference which, under the skilled and learned guidance of Lord Bryce, sat for some six months and reported at the beginning of last year. What that Conference proposed was the constitution of a new Chamber, the formation of a Senate, with which your Lordships had little to do. It is true that an insignificant and evanescing fragment of your Lordships' House was to be kept here, but it was gradually to disappear; and sooner or later your Lordships as a political force in the country would have passed away—and rather sooner than later.

I do not say that drastic reform ought not to take place, though I point out that if it is on the lines of the Report it would entirely sweep away the noble Lords who sit on the bench below me, because they were to be elected by groups of the House of Commons, and it would be—I think we should all hold—a great misfortune if the Party to which they belong were not represented here in greater force than it is in another place. But in any case I believe that I ant not exaggerating when I say that the whole future of the hereditary Peerage as a political force in this country depends upon how far they set their House in order now and show that they are competent to discharge their duty in these great times. Even if they are not to have specifically allotted to them a part of the new House which is to be created out of their own body, they will find it difficult, when they have to be elected directly or indirectly outside, to justify their claims unless they have shown themselves efficient as law makers whilst they had a chance when sitting by right of birth or by right of creation.

This is a most important time for your Lordships to take this matter into consideration. I may be asked whether the existing procedure is not satisfactory. It would not be satisfactory in any Legislative Assembly. The whole secret of efficient legislation is division of labour and devolution of duty. The House of Commons learned slowly to give their Bills to Committees upstairs, and at the present moment a great scheme of reform is being considered which will pass every Bill, automatically, to Grand Committee and do away practically with the Committee stage of the whole House, except in regard to a few small and unimportant measures. The experiment began long ago. In 1882 Grand Committees were set up in the House of Commons. There were only two at first, and they were afterwards increased to four; now they are to be increased to six.

I have often sat on these Grand Committees. There is one Bill in particular in regard to which we had a long sitting of the Grand Committee, and which I think is an example of its great value in regard to these proposals. When the Prime Minister introduced his wonderful project of National Insurance it was found impossible to deal with the second part of it in Committee of the whole House, and so Unemployment Insurance was referred to Grand Committee upstairs, It was a complicated and difficult measure, and just one of the same kind of those measures of social reform which your Lordships are to be asked to consider this session and the next. The work was so well done that it set up a system which is now being used to save the country from anarchy. There is not the least doubt that had the whole machinery for paying out unemployment benefit not been ready it would have been impossible to provide it for giving the donation benefit which three quarters of a million of people, men and women, are now receiving. The House of Commons has learned, in spite of all the will o' the wisp proposals for the creation of separate Legislatures in every three counties—restoring the Heptarchy—they have learned that they can only get efficiency in their own House by passing on legislation to Grand Committees upstairs.

The difference is immense between the consideration of a Bill in Committee of the whole House and consideration in Grand Committee. The Minister upstairs sits with his experts beside him; every amendment is not regarded as a challenge, and if it is accepted it is not a rebuff which gives cause to those who are anxious to make querulous speeches about the Government having lost its hold on the country. Questions are considered on their merits, and Party prejudice does not prevail. If wanted in the House of Commons I venture to say that the Grand Committee stage, as I recommend it to your Lordships, is far more wanted here. It is true that in the case of measures of first-class importance, like the last Franchise Act, there is a good attendance in your Lordships' House, and that the Amendments are fairly considered. But what we have to expect now is a great inflow of measures of social and industrial change—not such as will excite any keen interest in themselves, but matters where expert knowledge such as is possessed by many of your Lordships is of the greatest account.

As a rule these measures here are put into the hands of the Lords-in-Waiting, or noble Lords attached to the Household of His Majesty. I yield to no one in my admiration of the Lords-in-Waiting and the manner in which they discharge their functions in this House. They have shown always the greatest courage, almost more than the courage of the trenches, when they have to defend positions which they have not had much preparation or equipment to occupy. It is impossible that they can be omniscient; yet these Bills are given, two and three to one Lord-in-Waiting, and two and three to another Lord-in-Waiting, and they are asked to show an expert knowledge in that particular department of affairs which will enable them to meet the searching criticism of those who know all about the particular subject. It is unfair to the noble Lords that they should be put in that position in Committee, as they constantly are, and it would not be so if you had any rational method of procedure.

I suggest that these Bills are particularly those measures which should go upstairs. Then you would have not only the advantage of political courage on the part of Ministers, but you would have also the expert assistance of the heads of the different. Departments, who would be able to advise them on the spot as to what they had better accept and what they should reject. It is true, that they may have experts standing outside the proper limits of the House whom they can consult from time to time in Committee of the whole House, but that is not the same thing. The atmosphere is different, and I submit, in regard to the whole of this programme of social reconstruction which is to be submitted to the country, that the expert and detailed consideration in Committee is what ought to be given to them, and that it is impossible here. For example, there is to be a Bill, as we all know, to provide a vast number of building schemes, under different conditions as to the acquisition of land and construction of houses, all over the country. There is hardly a member of your Lordships' House who has not some acquaintance with the development of land for building purposes, and I know myself that the man who has covered the suburbs of London with houses has a seat in this House. I do not think I have ever heard him speak. That is the sort of experience that ought to be brought to bear on these matters.

It is sometimes asked whether noble Lords would be inclined to attend Grand Committee. I am certain they would. They would show themselves anxious to discharge their duties if they knew that work was to be done. What keeps them away from this House is the uncertainty and laxity of our procedure. They come here without the least idea whether they will have anything to do or not, hardly knowing whether the Motions on the Paper will be taken or not. If they were summoned to Committee and knew they would have to consider measures of far-reaching social value you would get them, and you would get all the service they can give to the State by reason of their great qualities of knowledge and experience. It would have a real effect on the House of Commons. I am not entering into the question of the system under which we receive at the end of the session batches of Bills altogether without any proper time to consider any one of them. How can they show any respect when they know perfectly well that Bills in Committee here will be slurred over under ludicrous conditions. If it was known that Bills were to be sent to a Grand Committee, they would be sent up here in time to pass through all the necessary stages. Now when a Bill comes here it is often necessary to suspend the whole of our Standing Orders so as to pass it through in a single night. I do not attach importance to the fact that there are more stages here for Bills than in any Assembly in Europe. That does not matter. The important stages are Second Reading, Committee, and Report.

The House of Commons is appointing six Grand Committees, and I venture to suggest that your Lordships should appoint three. I suggest that they should be more or less appointed by the Committee of Selection, to the number of forty and with a quorum of fifteen. All Bills would go automatically for Committee stage to Grand Committee, and there would not be a further stage in this House. As a matter of fact, curiously enough, there used to be a form of this House by which every Bill, after passing through the Committee stage, stood re-committed to the Standing Committee, which consisted of the Lord Chairman and eight other peers, unless the House otherwise ordered. I do not quite understand what has happened in this respect. Sir Erskine May says that the Standing Order passed in 1889, 1890, and 1891 for the Sessional Appointment of the Standing Committee, to which every Bill stood re-committed, was what he calls "vacated" in 1910. Anyhow, there is no precedent for the practical purpose for which I put the question.

I do not think that I need trouble your Lordships further. I venture to suggest to you that this is the only sensible and reasonable method of putting our own affairs in order. I do not for one moment think that we want it to be said of us, what was said of an English King, that. what best became him in life was the leaving of it; but I do hope that when we have to stand the challenge of the other House as to our legislative efficiency, we shall be able to point to the fact that we have done everything, at the beginning of this new social era, to put ourselves abreast of the times. An eighteenth century writer said that it was better to wear out than to rust out, and better to break than to wear out. Anyhow, the worst thing that we can do is to rust out. The worst thing that can be said of us in the record of history by the great Registrar is that we perished of atrophy. I do not believe there is any other way than by frankly recognising that our legislative efficiency depends upon the system of passing on our measures to Committee for consideration in detail. I do not believe there is any other way of making ourselves, what we ought to be, a co-efficient factor in the Parliamentary arrangements of this Commonwealth.


My Lords, perhaps before an answer is given I may be permitted to say a word or two upon the special points referred to. I do not want to go into the more general questions as regards the prospects of the life of this House in its present form. The noble Lord says that the present procedure makes efficiency impossible, and that it is prehistoric and cumbrous, and his suggestion is that our procedure would be improved by the appointment of three Grand Committees, and that in substance the Committee stage of all Bills should not be taken in this House but before those Grand Committees. First of all, the Grand Committee system has been tried in this House and found not to be a success. I think there is an obvious difference as regards the question of procedure between this House and the House of Commons. The reason why Grand Committees are required in the House of Commons is that business is congested, and the whole basis upon which Grand Committees are appointed is that the House of Commons itself has not time to deal with business which, if it were possible, ought to be brought before it in its corporate capacity. On the other hand, nobody can say that this House is overburdened or congested with business.


It all comes at one time, and we want to be able to deal with several Bills at one time.


I have not noticed that that has been the difficulty. The congestion of business to which the noble Lord refers has been owing to Bills being sent up too late in the session for proper consideration, and I do not think that this difficulty would be met by his suggestion of Grand Committees. I want to go beyond that. Surely the leading factor in the duty of this House is revision, as was pointed out by the Committee presided over by Lord Bryce. Its most important function is Committee work. We may discuss matters of general principle as regards big Bills, but practically they are decided elsewhere; but when we get into Committee it is entirely different, and certainly in my experience, during the short time that I have been in this House, the Committee stage has not been prehistoric, cumbrous or inefficient, but extremely efficient. In all the important Bills that I can recollect important Amendments have been made and sanctioned by the House itself. Surely, so long as the House is in a position to undertake work of that kind it is much better that it should be done in the House than in any Grand Committee to which business might be devoluted. I regard it as one of the advantages of this House that we can deal with Bills in the House itself, and are not compelled to devolute our duties to Grand Committee, however constituted, because one knows perfectly well that during the time when Grand Committee would sit a large number of members of the House, who take an interest in business and generally do what they can to reform and revise Bills in Committee, would not be available, because they have work and duties elsewhere.

Listening to what the noble Lord said, there was only one matter which struck me as of some importance. No doubt you may have Bills of a special character. You may have Bills that require expert knowledge. The proper way to proceed with such Bills is, if necessary, to refer them to a properly chosen Select Committee. That has been done more than once, and I am not in the least objecting to proceedings of that kind, but I hope before the House commits itself to Grand Committees the whole matter may be carefully considered. I trust that the precedent that in former times Grand Committees have been tried and failed in this House will be carefully considered. I only rose for the purpose of saying that I am certainly one of those by no means convinced, at present, that the Committee stage in these important matters should be withdrawn from the House itself.


The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, commenced his observations by a compliment to the abilities of your Lordships' House, which is now so often repeated as to have become almost conventional, but which in a spirit of self-satisfaction I am quite prepared to endorse. He then told us that his object, with which all of us are in sympathy, is to enable the House to do justice to itself. Having made this excellent declaration of intention, he proceeded to draw a picture of the activities, or perhaps I should rather say inactivities, of this House, which I think must have struck the majority of noble Lords who have greater acquaintance with the House than my noble friend, as over-coloured and indeed lurid. I was a little surprised to hear his attack upon the prehistoric and archaic features of our system, because my recollection of the career of the noble Lord is this, that advancing from somewhat dangerous Radical opinions in his early youth, he has steadily gravitated towards an admiration of that which is picturesque and archaic; and when these things are impugned I should have confidently relied upon him to rally to their support.

I need not devote more than a sentence to say that the particular features to which the noble Lord alluded—for instance, the picturesque ceremonies with which a Peer is introduced in this House—inexplicable as they may seem to the casual observer, have in most cases serious traditional foundation and positive historical value, and I am confident that your Lordships would not be at all disposed to part with them unless it can be shown that they interfere with that dispatch of public business which the noble Lord desiderates. But, apart from that, my noble friend went on to give a general description of the position and functions of your Lordships' House. He did not spare the adjectives which lie employed. They might almost have figured in a leading article in the paper with which he is so honourably connected. For instance, he told us that our procedure is irrational, cumbrous, inefficient, rusty, atrophied, and ludicrous. That is a very formidable indictment indeed, and although I shall have something to say upon the solution which the noble Lord proposes, I am bound to remark that his proof was altogether inadequate to the support of the charges which he brought.

What is my noble friend's proposal? He sees that changes have been introduced over the way. He has his own experience of Grand Committees in another place, where I have no doubt he behaved with complete detachment from that Party spirit which, according to him, is so rarely visible in the upper rooms in another place. He has his own personal experience of the system of Grand Committees there, and he proposes that three Grand Committees—he did not say what, or for what purposes, or how discriminated from each other—should be set up in your Lordships' House, and that all Bills should go automatically to one or other of those Grand Committees. The noble Lord was quite unconscious, or nearly unconscious, of the fact that he was galloping about a very stricken field. My noble friend Lord Parmoor pointed out that this was no novel suggestion. Not merely is it not a new suggestion, but it has been tried, and tried more than once in different forms in your Lordships' House; and in the expectation that my noble friend might perhaps be insufficiently acquainted with the history of the past, I took the trouble, before coming down here, to refresh my memory as to what actually is the history of this case; because, as my noble friend Lord Parmoor remarked, there is no good in making an experiment here if it has already been tried and failed. We ought to be guided by the light of our previous experience.

What is the history of Standing Committees or Grand Committees in your Lordships' House? It is as follows. In the year 1888 it was brought before your Lordships' House at the instance of the late Lord Cadogan, who took a great interest in these matters throughout, and' by Lord Herschell whose authority was second 10 none. Lord Herschell argued that it would be an advantage if your Lordships' House went more carefully into the details of Bills, and if an additional stage were provided for doing so. Accordingly, at the instance of these noble Lords, a Select Committee was set up in 1888 which reported upon the suggestion. In the following year—March, 1889—the Report of the Committee having been accepted, new Standing Orders were adopted which provided for the appointment of Standing Committees to consider Bills before they went into Committee of the whole House, though it was true that a Bill might also be committed to the whole House instead. Two such Committees were set up in April, 1889. One was for law, and it contained forty Lords. The other was for Public Bills in general, and it contained sixty Lords. These two Committees met not infrequently in the course of 1889 and 1890, and Bills were referred to them. The average attendance at these Committees, from the figures which I have examined, was between seventeen and Twenty-seven. There was rarely anything like a full attendance.

After two years' experience this system broke down, not because it had done its work badly, but because when the Bills came back from the Standing Committee to the Committee of the whole House, or to the whole House sitting whether in Committee or not, the Peers thought—and thought with a good deal of reason— that the decision had been taken out of their hands, and that they were not at liberty to exercise the unfettered judgment to which they had a right upon the details of some of these very important measures. Accordingly, in January, 1891, Lord Cadogan, who had been the mover in the first instance, himself moved for another Committee of inquiry upon its failure, and in the course of that discussion the then Lord Salisbury, speaking with the great authority which he always carried in your Lordships' House, suggested that although the Standing Committees might have been a failure in the particular form in which they had existed, it might be a mistake to dispense with them altogether, and he proposed that they should be retained, but that reference of Bills to them should only be made after Bills had passed through Committee of the whole House. Another Committee—this was the second—was then appointed to inquire into this suggestion, and that Committee reported in February, 1891, in favour of a Standing Committee to which Bills should be referred after they had passed through Committee of the whole House. But it was generally accepted that no question already decided by the House should be re-opened by the Committee, and in practice the functions of the Committee were generally recognised to be those of examination of details, revision of phraseology, and matters of that sort.

We thus pass into a new era, when the second system was set up. This system had a longer existence than its predecessor, but it also carried in it the seeds of decay, and it presently perished of complete inanition. From the year 1891 onwards these Committees excited less and less interest. The attendance became smaller, and it grew to be a common practice in your Lordships' House to make a Motion that "the reference to the Standing Committee be negatived" This was a very undignified and very futile proceeding, and accordingly, after nine years' experience, another Committee—the third Select Committee—of inquiry was appointed to consider the Standing Orders of your Lordships' House. It reported in favour of the abolition of the system which I have described; and in 1910 the noble Earl of whom many of us have such affectionate recollections, Lord Camperdown, moved the adoption of the Report of the Committee, and the House unanimously agreed to its acceptance, the noble Marquess opposite, who was then the Leader of one of the sides of the House, joining in the general agreement to drop the proposal. That is the history, a chequered history, but a history of two-fold failure, of these Committees in your Lordships' House.

Now my noble friend Lord Burnham turns to what is passing in another place, and says, quite apart from his own experience of Grand Committees, that proposals are now being made to set up Standing Committees there. But the noble Lord, Lord Parmoor, very aptly pointed out at this stage that the situation and the problems in the two Houses are entirely different. In the House of Commons what they want to do is to save the time of the House, to speed up the legislative machine to enable the Government to carry into effect the great programme of legislation which it has foreshadowed for the country. That is not what we want here. Our problem surely is a different one. We have leisure. My noble friend Lord Salisbury, the other day, was complaining that our leisure is abundant and excessive. What we want here, it seems to me, is not so much to hurry on our procedure as to make better use of our time; what we want really is to stimulate the interest in the work of this House of noble Lords, not merely those who are here, but many of those who do not attend frequently.


Bills all come up together.


Whether noble Lords might more readily come up to a Committee, I cannot say; it is worthy of consideration. But that at any rate is the object which, if we reform our procedure, we ought to have in view. At this stage the noble and learned Lord, Lord Parmoor, made a suggestion. He said that he could imagine a situation in which a Committee, whether you call it a Grand Committee or a Select Committee, might be serviceable for the examination of a particular measure. That may be. I can conceive of cases in which it might be useful and even desirable to move, with regard to a particular Bill, that it should be referred to an ad hoc Committee appointed for the purpose. Upon that Committee you might place a large number of noble Lords interested in the measure itself, and you might secure a larger attendance than we sometimes see in your Lord- ships' House. That is a suggestion which I think not unworthy of consideration. But I am not certain that even that suggestion really touches the heart of the question. I have only had eleven years' experience of this House, and therefore I speak with great diffidence on the matter, but I am inclined to think that our procedure in sonic respects, the arrangement of our business, the hours at which we meet, the hours at which we separate, the manner in which we deal with Questions and so on, may to some extent be susceptible of improvement. Whether that is so or not I would prefer to trust to the judgment of more experienced Peers than myself.

Therefore my own inclination would be to await an expression of the views of other noble Lords speaking with authority in this House as to whether they think the time has arrived in which we might, perhaps, have a Select Committee to inquire into the general question of the procedure of your Lordships' House with a view of considering its proper adaptation to the prompt discharge of business and the adequate movement of the legislative machine. I should not desire on my own account to make any proposal of that sort to-day. What I would like would be to let an interval of several days, if necessary of a week, elapse; I would like to hear what other noble Lords speaking with authority have to say upon the matter; and if any strong desire is expressed that a Committee should be set up to examine into this question, I should be prepared, when I had received full information to that effect, to move that a Select Committee be appointed for the purpose. But I pledge nobody by what I say now. I merely throw out the suggestion for examination by others.


My Lords, I am sure we all recognise the earnestness and conviction with which my noble friend Lord Burnham has brought forward this question. He enjoys an almost unique experience in having been a member of the Speaker's Conference and also a member of the Conference which was presided over by my noble friend below the gangway on the future of this House. He is, therefore, if we may say so, steeped to the lips in procedure and questions of that kind, and his authority cannot be questioned. At the same time when he developed, as he did, so strong a desire for a recurrence to the system of Grand Committees to be applied to your Lordships' House, I am very glad that the noble Earl opposite who leads us gave such a clear and succinct account of our experience in the past.

The noble Earl's statement was, I think, accurate in every particular. I well remember all the circumstances. I frequently sat on one of those original Grand Committees dealing with general Bills to which the noble Lord has alluded. Some excellent work was done there, notably by such men as the noble Earl who was mentioned by Lord Curzon—Lord Camper-down—and some others whose skill and experience in business were beyond all question. But the failure, in spite of the excellent work that was done, of those Committees was precisely what the noble Earl has described. When measures came back here after their consideration in that room on the ground floor presided over by the picture of Moses, we used to find that noble Lords who had not been members of the Committee were apt to desire to reopen at length all manner of points which had been thoroughly thrashed out, as we thought, in the Grand Committee; and being justly enamoured of the independence of your Lordships' House, they greatly resented the implications which were usually made by those who had served on the Committee that really it was not worth while to raise the matter again here, because it had been fully considered by most competent people in the other room; and that, therefore, it was out of place to attempt to reopen the whole subject here. This, my Lords, perpetually occurred, and was, I think, the main reason for the breakdown of the system, and for the further inquiry which the noble Earl describes. It was found that no time was actually saved and some tempers were occasionally lost by the adoption of this particular process.

On the other hand, the system of delegating to Select Committee certain public Bills of a technical sort is; as the noble Earl has told us, quite familiar to this House. When I first came here I was one of the people to whom my noble friend alluded in kindly terms. I had the honour of holding a post in Queen Victoria's Household and represented the Board of Trade. It was a period when Electric Lighting Bills first began to be brought into your Lordships' House, and the subject was one which excited wide interest and not a little difference of opinion. Those were public Bills, not private Bills, and they were referred to a Select Committee which lasted, as I remember, through the greater part of the session, and upon that Committee noble Lords supposed to be specially cognisant of the subject were placed. That is a procedure which can often be followed with advantage; and many of your Lordships can supply similar instances in which it has been done.

But I confess that, like the noble Earl the Leader of the House, I am not sanguine of any advantage coming from the attempt to resuscitate the system of Grand Committees here. It is not for us to speak in any critical tone of time proceedings or proposals in another place, but when we are told that it is suggested there that practically all the business of Parliament should be relegated to Grand Committees, it is right to mention that there is evidently a marked division of opinion there on this point; and the system of Grand Committees (although, I well remember, strongly opposed at the time when it was first suggested—I think by the late Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman) has been found of no small utility, and its extension, and in particular its unlimited extension, raises a strong body of opinion who regard the prospect with something like dismay. Therefore I think we cannot, so to speak, pray in aid the experience of another place for the entirely different conditions under which we exist here.

The fact is that owing to the constitution of your Lordships' House the main political work is, and always has been within the memory of anybody alive, done by a comparatively small number of Peers. I cannot agree with my noble friend that the Committee work of the House has been anything but exceedingly well done here. I have myself, when I sat on the other side of the House, frequently suffered from the skilful attention paid by noble Lords on this side to the Bills of which I was in charge, and I do not think it can be said that measures of all kinds—those which have excited political feeling, and those which are mainly technical and do not cause differences of opinion of that kind—receive anything but the most meticulous attention from your Lordships' House. I cannot see myself why, if a certain number of competent critics are collected for the consideration of a Bill in Committee, they cannot do the work just as well on these red benches as seated in one of the Committee rooms upstairs. Those who are not specially concerned do not attend, and those who are concerned have every facility for the criticism which they wish to utter. When some important point of principle is affected noble Lords troop down in large numbers and vote, but you cannot deprive them of that right at some stage or another, and you gain nothing by leaving points open in the Grand Committee because they are of a sort that may awaken party differences, for you simply postpone them to a later stage of the Bill to be settled here.

I am afraid, as a matter of fact, there is nothing to be done here by means of Grand Committees. But the noble Earl opposite made—I will not say exactly a proposition, but threw out a suggestion—for an inquiry of a wider kind, namely, that it might be possible by consideration to arrive at sonic improvement in the general procedure of your Lordships' House. I do not at all deny that that is possible, although I confess I am not exceedingly sanguine. The difficulties under which we labour here are, I am afraid, due in part to our constitution, which by common agreement in your Lordships' House by men of all parties, stands at any rate in need of some reform; and partly through the fact that we do not receive much consideration from two sets of persons who for this purpose may almost be regarded as one—I mean, the one the House of Commons and the other the Government of the day, the Government of the day being, of course, mainly dependent on and working through the House of Commons itself. That, of course, is the explanation of the grievance which we have so long laboured under, and which has so often been brought before your Lordships' House—it was brought up only the other day—that of the late period at which we receive measures for consideration. The noble Earl, Lord Curzon, was not very hopeful himself that we should do better in this regard in the future—at least so I gathered from what he said; he did not seem to think that in the circumstances we were likely to be much better off this session than we have been in the past. But until some change can be made in that respect I confess that I do not hope for very much, although some little improvement may be effected by alterations in your Lordships' procedure.

But at the same time, if it is proposed that a Select Committee should be appointed to consider these questions of business and procedure, I could not think of raising the faintest objection to its appointment, although, not being very hopeful myself, I should not ask for it; but I have no doubt that those for whom I have the honour to speak in the House would do their best to contribute to a fruitful result from its labours. I hope, therefore, that the noble Earl will consider that I have no wish whatever to throw cold water on his suggestion, although I cannot go to the point of welcoming it with warm enthusiasm, because I do not expect a great deal from it, although I quite admit that some benefit may result.


My Lords, I sympathise with a great deal of what fell from Lord Burnham as to the situation in which your Lordships' House is placed and the great obligation that rests upon it, especially at this particular moment, to see that our business is done as well as possible. There were two points, though, which I might just notice. First of all, the observations that my noble friend made in a most kindly spirit on the subject of the Lords-in-Waiting who are good enough to represent Government Departments in your Lordships' House. I share with him a certain feeling of criticism of that department of our business, and it is not because I desire to say anything in the least disrespectful of those noble Lords. On the contrary, there is no reason in the world why they should not do their work as efficiently as any noble Lord in the Government. But there appears to be some distinction between the noble Lord who represents a Department when he is a Lord-in-Waiting and the noble Lord who represents a Department when lie is an Under-Secretary. In the one case he seems to be speaking in the main entirely from a brief; in the other case he seems to the onlooker to be speaking as a man who is in the closest confidence of his chief, familiar with all that goes on in the Department, and able to speak upon any subject which may turn up that has reference to the Department almost with equal ability to the chief himself. Why should there be that distinction?

The noble Lords who form part of the Household in this House are amply qualified to defend the Departments. I cannot help thinking that the reason is— if I may speak of the sacred precincts of the Departments themselves—that those noble Lords are not properly treated inside the Departments. If they were taken into confidence like an Under-Secretary would be, if they had a room and all the papers which were of importance in the Department always passing through their hands, they would, of course, be quite as well qualified—I dare say much more qualified than many Under-Secretaries are—to respond for that Department. At any rate, I venture to suggest with profound respect to the Leader of the House that it is worth his consideration whether his colleagues might not equip noble Lords who belong to the Household in a way which is more consonant with their position in your Lordships' House, and more convenient to noble Lords who want to inquire on a great variety of points as to the attitude of the Departments represented by those noble Lords.

Now upon the point of the Grand Committees. I should not like to exclude the Grand Committees as a method of getting through the business, but I must say that I share with the noble Marquess the Leader of the Opposition the view that the Committee work of your Lordships' House is exceedingly well done. It is said that "comparisons are odious," but I must say, having had the honour of sitting in both Houses, that the Committee work in the House of Lords is better done than it is in the House of Commons. I do not mean to say that so great a number of noble Lords take part in the work as is the case in the House of Commons, but on the whole the results are more satisfactory from a legislative point of view. Also, of course, there is not that great pressure on our time, as the noble Earl the Leader of the House has pointed out, which exists in the House of Commons. But Lord Burnham has pointed out that the difficulty is that all the Bills reach us at the same time. If you could divide up, as it were, the House of Lords and form several bodies out of this one body, then the several Bills which are in a crowd on our Table at one moment could be divided up, and you could by a division of labour, so to speak—I think I am representing the noble Lord rightly—


Hear, hear.


—get through much more business. That certainly has an attractive side. But I am afraid that the criticism of the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, is true—that is to say, that the result would not be satisfactory to those noble Lords who did not form part of the Committee to which the Bill happened to be sent, and they would re-try the issue when it came back to your Lordships' House. Yet if we find at the end of this session that there is the same difficulty as is usually the case, then we certainly ought not to exclude the remedy which Lord Burnham has proposed and which seems to be well worth consideration.

There is, however, another remedy—namely, that we should decline to take the Bills when they reach us all together in a crowd. If they are urgent they must, of course, be taken. During the war most of them were urgent and had to be taken. But there really is no reason why they should all be taken in ordinary times of peace. There used to be a reason, because Parliament separated, say, in August and did not re-assemble until the following February, and then the work had to be begun all over again. A Bill had again to pass through all its stages in the House of Commons, and great delay resulted. But now Parliament sits for most of the year; even the longest recess is to be numbered only in weeks, and the delay is not really very great. Probably when we get to August Parliament will be adjourned until October, and there is nothing to prevent us adjourning the Bills that we cannot properly consider until October. Some of them may be urgent, but most of them will not be. There will be important Bills, but a slight delay of a few weeks, or even months, will not make any difference. And even when we reach the Prorogation—which we must at some time or other (I must confess myself to be a strong supporter of the principle of what is known as "carrying over")—I should like to see the principle of carrying over adopted in Parliament. It does seem to me to be the last word in waste of time that either House of Parliament should go through the elaborate machinery of getting a Bill through Second Reading, consideration in Committee, consideration on Report, and then sent to another place, but because the Bill is not quite finished at the end of the session it has to be begun all over again in the next session. I should be glad to see in these days of crowded legislation a Standing Order adopted in both Houses of Parliament by which a Bill could be taken up in the ensuing session at precisely the same stage as that at which it was left in the session preceding. If my noble friend proceeds, and the Select Committee were empowered to consider topics of that kind, I should be one of its strongest supporters.


My Lords, I belong to the class of Peer whom the noble Earl the Leader of the House twice rather pointedly said he did not wish to hear on this subject, for I cannot claim to speak as a noble Lord having any authority. But I have sat in this House for well over thirty years, I have watched the procedure on Bills, and I have sometimes ventured to take sonic part in that procedure. I confess that I heard with astonishment, and indeed with a sense of shock, the speech of the noble Lord on the bench above the gangway. It is not very many months since in your Lordships' House the noble Lord was defending, on picturesque and historical grounds, such an anachronism as the Livery franchise, and I did not expect to hear from him to-day such iconoclastic sentiments. I have felt at times, in fact, that I was the only true and consistent reactionary left in your Lordships' House!

But to come to the subject which has been raised. I do not think—and I do not believe that many members of your Lordships' House who have taken much part in Committee of the whole House will think—that there is any fault to be found with our procedure in Committee now. I confess for my own part it has always seemed to me that, putting aside certain subjects on which there are prejudices in this House which are unsurmountable—subjects connected with the Church, or with land—a Bill is generally considered in Committee here with the sole desire to improve the Bill and to make a good workable measure of it. On the whole, noble Lords take part in the debate with speeches which are short and to the point, and made not for the purpose of being reported in Hansard or read in their constituencies—of which, fortunately, they have none—but for the sole purpose of enabling the House to make the Bill the best Bill it can be made for its object. It cannot be said that we are crowded with work in that sense, and that for that reason we have any necessity for devolution.

But it has been pointed out with perfect truth that it is our misfortune year after year—and year after year I have heard noble Lords complain of it—to have thrust upon us a mass of important Bills at the end of the session, in the "dog days." It is true that we are sometimes asked by the Government, and very often in a. manner which cannot very well be resisted, to get on with these Bills, and get them through, and I think it is possible that the proper amount of consideration is not given to the Bills under those circumstances which we should all wish to give to them. That would not be cured by setting up Grand Committees, and for the reasons which have already been given. The number of noble Lords who take a keen and active interest in these questions is really very small, one might almost say a score or so, and you cannot have these noble Lords on all the Grand Committees. It is perfectly obvious that if they are interested, as they probably would be, they would not be satisfied with the discussion and examination in Committee of a question in which they had not taken a part. You would get in effect a second Committee stage and Report stage in circumstances which would be a good deal less convenient.

I cannot think that the remedy which has been suggested would be a remedy, but I would like to join in the appeal voiced by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury—an appeal which is constantly made—that an endeavour should be made to let this House have some of the important Bills earlier. I sympathise with the noble Lord and the excellent reasons he gave, and was glad to hear such Radical sentiments, unimpaired by the Parliament Act, proceeding from the bench opposite as to Bills which have to do with finance. Of course, it is perfectly true that all these reconstructional measures are founded on finance, but in some cases it may be possible to introduce Bills here, and, if that is not possible, to get some of them before us in June and not let us have them altogether in a bunch at the end of July. I should much regret the disappearance of the Committee stage in this House. I have taken part in a great many debates, and noble Lords will agree with me that on the whole a Bill receives very careful consideration in Committee, when we are able to interchange our views very frankly. When there is no acute political question we often arrive at a better solution than if we had arrived at a solution in a give-and-take manner.

Another point has been raised as to the attendance in this House. If we want to get the residuum of noble Lords who seldom attend this House to come here I think they must have some opportunity of taking part in our proceedings, and I think the Government and those responsible for the conduct of business in this House might do something to encourage the back-bench Peers to take more part in our proceedings. I do not think you can expect noble Lords to attend here if they have nothing to do except to sit through debates and take part now and then in a Division. They seldom conic here because they feel that their presence is not required, and if some encouragement could be given to them, and if they had an opportunity to take part in our debates, they would come and give us the benefit of their knowledge and ability.


My Lords, I am disappointed that there are not more Bills introduced into this House in the first instance. Those who have had experience of the House of Commons know that through the session there is a long list of Government Bills—not of first importance but of some importance, which have to be dealt with. Ministers are anxious for an opportunity to introduce their Bills and carry them through. I think this is work that we could do well in this House, and I am sure that members of the House of Commons and also members of the Government would be very pleased with such assistance.

I had the honour myself of passing a Bill, with your Lordships' assistance, through this House—the Registration of Business Names Bill. It was an experiment, and I was told that I should not succeed in getting the Bill through. I introduced the Bill, it was referred to Committee, passed by this House, and sent down to the House of Commons. The House of Commons amended it, and when it came back to this House we accepted the Bill without interfering with the Amendments which had been made. If the Government would introduce some of their smaller Bills—I know that we should like to have the important Bills earlier—but if they would introduce their smaller Bills here, have them properly discussed and revised in Committee and then sent to the House of Commons, it would relieve the House of Commons of a vast amount of work, and I have no doubt that the services of your Lordships would be highly appreciated.

There may be some old-fashioned idea that it has never been the custom of the House of Lords to deal with Bills in this manner, but I think it is a mistaken idea. With the vast, and new departments of the Government, and when Ministers are desirous to get their Bills passed, we can be of much assistance in this way at this period of the session, and the ability and knowledge possessed by members of this House is, I am quite confident, equal to what may be found in the House of Commons. The Bills would go to the. House of Commons, I am sure, in a. better shape than those which come from the House of Commons here. If my suggestion was adopted we, could be of great assistance in relieving the House of Commons of a great pressure of work, and at the same time also give your Lordships sonic occupation.

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