§ THE HOURS OF SITTING.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY rose to ask the Lord President of the Council whether he would be prepared to recommend the House to advance the hour of public business so that it shall begin as soon after four o'clock as the necessities of private business will permit.
§ The noble Marquess said: My Lords, this Question which. I put to my noble friend the Leader of the House, will want very few words from me to recommend it to him. The truth is that the amount of business which is likely to bespeak your Lordships' attention in the coming months will probably very much exceed that to which we have recently been accustomed. I earnestly hope that it may reach us in good time and I am sure after what has passed in the House that the noble Earl will do his utmost to expedite that part of the business. The earlier it comes the more necessity there will be for ample time to be provided soon for the proper discussion of this business. The business is likely to be of an extremely interesting character, and, as I said on a previous occasion, the responsibility of this House in the existing circumstances may be very important indeed.613
§ This being so, some of us have been led to consider whether we could not have a little more time in which to carry out the consideration of important matters. Under the present system, as your Lordships are aware, the House meets for public business at half-past four o'clock, and there is really only a rather briefly limited time before the hour approaches when for certain domestic reasons the House generally thins a good deal. Indeed, it is not really possible for us to keep a house in ordinary circumstances much after seven o'clock—that means about two and a half hours. In former times, of course, the House sat much more frequently after dinner, and I dare say that may be necessary again. But recently the habits of those who take part in our debates have become such as to make it very difficult to sit after dinner as a common occurrence.
§ But though our hours have therefore been curtailed, I am not sure that our speeches have been curtailed. So that what happens is that the speeches of those of your Lordships who engage the attention of the House are as long as they used to be, but the time at our disposal is considerable shorter. That produces not only an unfortunate effect, but in point of fact it limits the opportunities which the House has of hearing as many of your Lordships as it would desire to hear. In looking at the arrangement of our business one cannot help being struck by the fact that, even after the House has formally assembled, there is considerable delay. When prayers are said in the afternoon, it is at 4 o'clock or a few minutes after. Private business begins at a quarter-past four, and a great many valuable minutes are expended without any particular result.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
Then I was wrong in regard to a few minutes. There appears to be good reason to think, therefore, that we can save that quarter of an hour and perhaps a little more. I understand that judicial business finishes at a quarter to four. If the House could begin its other business at 4 o'clock, or as soon after as possible, that would appear to be the most economical use of our time that could be made. Speaking generally, prayers are said in the morning when 614 judicial business begins; but on Wednesdays, when there is usually no judicial business, prayers are said in the afternoon.
The form of the Question is not intended to be very precise. If we make some change in our Standing Orders the words, no doubt, would have to be carefully considered; but what I contend is that, unless there is private business, the House should begin effectually to do its work at 4 o'clock. That does not seem to be at all an unreasonable proposition. If prayers have to be in the afternoon, I imagine prayers would be said just before 4 o'clock, and that would only be on Wednesdays, when there is no judicial business. On the other days, prayers being earlier, there would be no question of their interference. Therefore we could then begin our business effectually and effectively at 4 o'clock. That is the very moderate and modest proposal which I venture to make to your Lordships.
We should be most unwilling, of course, to interfere with our other great, functions—namely, our judicial functions. That would be a very strong measure to take, and therefore when it was suggested, as it was by certain noble Lords, that we should sit at 3.30, we felt that it would be asking rather too much of the legal side of our functions. Sitting at 4 o'clock ought not seriously to interfere with the legal side, and it will give us an extra valuable half-hour. Therefore I cannot help thinking that we should be well advised, in view of the heavy burden of work which is likely to come upon us, if we made this moderate alteration in our procedure.
§ THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL (EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON)
My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Marquess for giving me an opportunity both of replying to the Question and of adding one or two other observations upon the subject of the procedure of the House a matter to which attention was pointedly called the other day by Lord Burnham, and about which I have since had an opportunity of consulting several members of great experience of the proceedings of your Lordships' House.
In order to understand exactly what, is proposed and what it is possible to do, and in what respects our present procedure is deficient, if it is, let us have a very clear understanding of what are the actual re- 615 gulations and practice of the House. We ordinarily meet here on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday in the week. Some times, but more usually later in the session, we meet also on Mondays and Fridays. On Tuesday and Thursday Bills have precedence of all other Notices upon the Paper. Wednesday is the private members' afternoon, and Bills on that afternoon are only taken after other business. Your Lordships' House meets for the discharge of judicial business on four days of the week—namely, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, at 10.30 in the morning, and, as a rule, concludes those proceedings at 3.45 in the afternoon, although sometimes for the convenience of an argument, or a speaker, the time of rising is slightly postponed. On Wednesday the House does not meet for judicial business at all. On the days on which the House sits for judicial business prayers are read, not at the afternoon session, but at the morning session before judicial business, and therefore on those days we are dispensed from reading prayers in the afternoon.
Now what is the object of the noble Marquess's Question? It is, as defined by himself, to allow of greater time being found within the limits of our ordinary procedure for the despatch of public business; to permit and indeed encourage more noble Lords to take part in our discussions than do now—although I was rather sorry to note that my noble friend held out no prospect whatever of any reduction in the length of the speeches to which we sometimes listen; and, indeed (what my noble friend has in view and what we all have), to give to the public at large a correct impression of the seriousness which characterises our proceedings in this House. He therefore proposes that we should on every day in the week meet as nearly as possible at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, instead of at 4.30.
Let us see what exactly happens in practice. I have already pointed out that the House separates from its judicial sittings at 3.45, or thereabouts. There is then half-an-hour before the hour of 4.15, when Parliamentary business is taken. In that half-hour the re-arrangement of the House has to be made—it has to be converted from a judicial tribunal into a legislative chamber. At 4.15 the Lord Chancellor takes his seat upon the Woolsack, and then ensues an interval of a quarter-of-an-hour in which, broadly speaking, 616 the following operations either do or can take place: Peers are introduced or take the Oath, Bills are read a first time, private Bills receive their Second or Third Reading, Questions are put by private notice and addressed to the Front Bench, and at 4.30 public business commences. The noble Marquess says, Cannot we contract or put back these proceedings, and commence not at 4.30 but at 4 o'clock? I dare say that the mechanical procedure of re-arranging the House could conceivably be effected in the interval between 3.45 and 4 o'clock, although it might be running it rather fine.
But we have also in the matter to consider with due respect the convenience and interests of the Lord Chancellor. On these days, Tuesdays and Thursdays for instance, the Lord Chancellor has now an interval between 3.45, when the Court rises, or it may be later, and the meeting of this House for other business at 4.15, to make those changes in his costume which render him an object not merely of dignity but of charm to your Lordships' House. He has to transact whatever business comes before him in the interval, and to sign documents which may be submitted to him. Indeed, these are some of the few moments of the day when he can perform any duties outside those of sitting as a Judge or as a legislator in this House. I think we should respect those necessities. I have taken the opportunity of consulting both the present Lord Chancellor and his predecessor upon the Woolsack, and I gather from both of them that it would be an inconvenience amounting to hardship to compel them after a long session, terminating at 3.45, to perform the various duties to which I have referred and again sit at 4 o'clock. Therefore as regards Tuesdays and Thursdays I should not like to hold out to my noble friend any encouragement that I would recommend the course which he has suggested.
I think, however, that on those days we should do well to follow his suggestion in one respect. He has spoken, quite correctly, of the apparent waste of time involved in the spectacle of the House sitting here, with the Lord Chancellor on the Woolsack, from 4.15 to 4.30, when there is no private business to be taken and nothing to prevent public business being proceeded with, and when an air of dignified but impotent leisure pervades the scene. I see no reason why on such occasions public business should not be proceeded with in the absence of 617 private business. That would mean that we should commence our ordinary proceedings as nearly as possible at 4.15 instead of at 4.30. As regards Wednesdays, when there is no judicial business, I think we may go, if your Lordships approve, not only the whole way that the noble Marquess desires, but even a little further. I have had the advantage of speaking on this matter to the Lord Chancellor, and I think I carry his consent with me when I make the suggestion that the House should meet on Wednesdays at 3.45; that, at its meeting at that hour prayers should be read and private business should be taken; and that, this being completed, public business should commence as nearly as possible at 4 p.m. That would mean a definite gain of at least half an hour, and I will show presently that I think it might be a great deal more on Wednesdays, Which are par excellence the days when private members do their work.
A further suggestion I venture to make for economising our time is this. We are all familiar with the picturesque ceremony by which noble Lords are introduced into this House or are advanced from one stage of the Peerage to another. What exactly its symbolism signifies probably none of us understands, but it is one of those survivals of the past which we cherish and from which I believe we would not readily part; but there is no reason whatever why a Peer should not be introduced in these circumstances on any day at any time that he likes to seek to arrange. All I understand that he has to do is to communicate with the Lord Chancellor in advance and fix a day by arrangement with him. Communication is then made to Garter King-at-Arms and the Clerk at the Table and the whole machinery is set in operation. The consequence is this, that this very dignified and, to the individual concerned, very important proceeding takes place without any notice given in advance, in a House that is sometimes wholly empty, frequently in the absence of the Leader of the House, commonly in the absence of the friends, unless they have been warned, of the noble Lord who is principally concerned. Would it not be an advantage to all parties that this procedure should as a rule take place on the Wednesday of the week? In other words, when the Peer who seeks introduction or who has been advanced a stage in the Peerage makes his communication to the Lord Chancellor, the Lord, Chancellor would see fit to advise him to arrange for 618 this procedure to be adopted upon Wednesday. We should then know where we are; a number of people would assemble to welcome the noble Lord; the Leader of the House would, on many occasions, seek to be present himself; and we should be spared the diffusion of the ceremony over this or that day of the week, when, as we have often had experience, it may seriously interfere with public business. I have been present on occasions when there was a large House waiting to proceed to important matter. Very likely there has been some little bit of private business, and, in addition to that, ten, fifteen, even twenty minutes have been taken up with the ceremony to which I alluded. No alteration is required in any Standing Order to produce this change, which is one, I think, that will be to the general advantage.
So much for the question of providing more time at the beginning of our proceedings. I wonder if we can do anything at the other end. The noble Marquess alluded to the difficulties that have attended our sittings after dinner, and he mentioned that in the old days after-dinner sittings were much more frequent. No doubt the diminution of the practice has been largely due to the special circumstances created by the war. When there was great difficulty in providing the requisite refreshments in another part of your Lordships' House, when there was practically no means of obtaining vehicular conveyance through the streets of London, when the streets themselves were ill-lighted or not lighted at all, it can well be understood that it was a matter not only of discomfort, but even of worse, to noble Lords after a long session here to find their way home at eleven or twelve o'clock at night. Therefore, the practice of after-dinner sittings, except in a few rare cases, has fallen into desuetude. I do not know that it is necessary as a universal course, as a uniform procedure, to revive it; but I should like to feel that whenever we are in Committee on an important Bill your Lordships will regard it as part of the natural and inevitable order of things that you will sit after dinner for the purpose.
Then there is another aspect of the same problem. It was alluded to, I think, by the noble Marquess. It is the question of the hour at which we adjourn, supposing there be no after-dinner sitting. 619 I think it is desirable that in such cases we should continue to sit as nearly as possible until eight o'clock. I mention that hour because I have noticed lately that the practice has grown up in the case, let us say, of some important discussion, which is sometimes adjourned from day to day, even from week to week, that a noble Lord who may have been speaking resumes his seat at approximately half-past seven. Thereupon another noble Lord who desires to resume the discussion, and who is somewhat chilled at the prospect of a speech to a rather empty Chamber and has considerable doubt as to the reception his speech will meet with in the Press Gallery, proposes the adjournment of the debate to the next or a later day. With all respect I do not think that is quite fair. I think that we ought to be able to continue our proceedings at least till 8 o'clock, and in so far as I am concerned—occupying the position that I happen to do—I will always make it my duty, as far as possible, to provide speakers, if Government speakers are required, to fill that interval; and I should like your Lordships, if you agree with my argument, to take the general line that on the whole it is reasonable that instead of adjourning at half-past seven we should sit till 8 o'clock. In that way we should gain on many occasions half an hour at the end of our proceedings as well as the half-hour which I have endeavoured to save at the beginning.
Will your Lordships bear with me while I say a few words about the difficult matter of Questions?—because Questions, and the treatment which they receive in your Lordships' House, are the source of a great deal of the irregularity and mischief of which some complain. It is rather a remarkable thing, if you look at the Standing Orders of the House, that the word "Question" except in its connotation of a subject, does not occur there at all, and when the Standing Orders were drawn up it cannot, I think, have been contemplated that Questions should assume anything like the place they now occupy in the attention of your Lordships' House. Questions are, from one point of view, our most cherished privilege, and I am certain your Lordships would not wish to forego their full and legitimate exercise, but it is also true that they are the case in which our regulations are most consistently and flagrantly violated.
620 Let me read to your Lordships Standing Order No. XXVII, which deals with this matter. It runs as follows—No Lord is to speak twice to any Bill, at one time of reading it, or to any other proposition, except the Mover in reply, unless it be to explain himself in some material point of his speech (no new matter being introduced), and that not without the leave of the House first obtained.Thus your Lordships will see that under the Standing Order a noble Lord is subject to four limitations as regards his second speech. In the first place, he cannot make it at all without the leave of the House; in the second place, it must only be in explanation of something that he has said before; in the third place, the explanation must relate to some material point of his former speech or argument; and, lastly, he is not at liberty to introduce any new matter. I am making no revelation when I say that those rules are more honoured in the breach than in the observance. What do we see? Scarcely a day passes in your Lordships' House in which a noble Lord who has put his Question on the Paper and made his speech does not think it necessary to get up and make a second speech later on. Sometimes it is a mere courteous expression of thanks to the Minister who has answered him. Even so, it is out of order. Sometimes it is a deliberate attempt to answer and to criticise the Minister who has given him the reply, and sometimes it is an entirely new speech supplementary to the first, and indeed on occasions wholly distinct from it.
Let me take as an illustration the last occasion on which your Lordships met and of which I have the printed proceedings, March the 6th. On that occasion my noble friend Lord Ribblesdale made a very characteristic and excellent speech about the treatment of horses in the streets of London. He was replied to by the Earl of Jersey on behalf of this Bench, and then my noble friend proceeded to make a second speech. First, he thanked the noble Earl for the reply he had given. That was all right although it was superfluous; and then he proceeded for a column and a half to make an entirely new speech not arising out of anything which had been said in reply, and not in explanation of anything that had been said by himself. Everybody, gratified at the incursions of my noble friend into the debate, witnessed this disorderly proceeding with perfect composure. The next Question was one by Earl Fortescue. He inquired about 621 the search which had been made in Germany for prisoners of war. To this a full reply was given by Lord Newton. My noble friend Earl Fortescue was not satisfied, and he jumped up again and said—May I ask the noble Lord one further question, Can be tell us anything about the prisoners in Turkey?—a wholly different subject, no hint of which had appeared on the Paper. The next subject dealt with was a discussion on the food situation in Central Europe, raised by Lord Wimborne. He made his speech, and was replied to by my noble friend the Earl of Crawford. Other noble Lords took part in the debate, and in the course of the discussion try noble friend Lord Harris having fallen upon Lord Parmoor who had spoken, up jumped Lord Parmoor and made a second speech in defence of himself. And finally at the close of the proceedings Lord Wimborne diffused a genial atmosphere by getting up and thanking everybody for all that had been said and poured compliments on this Bench. That is merely a casual illustration of our ordinary procedure. I think it cannot be doubted that it is quite out of accord with the Standing Orders.
Next let me take the second class of Question which we constantly have in your Lordships' House. These are the Questions which terminate with a Motion for Papers. I take it—the Clerks at the Table will correct me if I air wrong that when Notions are dealt with in the Standing Order it was never contemplated that Motions for Papers should lie made with no idea of haying Papers, but simply for the opportunity of giving the noble Lord who makes the Motion a chance to reply. But that is the way in which it is now interpreted. Any noble Lord who has not sufficient confidence in the generosity or patience of the House in allowing him to speak a second time, and who wants to be sure of his second speech, simply has to add to his Question a Motion for Papers. That, again, has admitted of an extension, or rather an abuse, which I think will not excite general sympathy. A noble Lord sometimes now puts down his Question on the Paper ending in a Motion for Papers. He rises in his place; he does not state the case at all, but merely says to the Minister on this Bench, "I put the Question that stands in my name." The Minister replies, and then the noble Lord, utilising the power of reply given him by the Motion 622 for Papers, gets up and makes a slashing attack on the Minister who has given the Ministerial defence. That is exactly what happened last week in the case of Lord Ampthill. He put down a Question relating to the treatment of Miss Violet Douglas Pennant. The least that could be expected was that he would make his statement when he put his Question, but he simply put the Question and consequently reserved his right of reply. Later in the evening he made a second speech, which I venture to think that he ought to have delivered as his first. Here I cannot do more than ask noble Lords to be sparing in the use of the privilege which the Motion for Papers places in their hands.
There is another difficulty that applies to both classes of Question. It is one which particularly affects and afflicts the occupants of this Bench. It is this. When we see a Question down on the Paper we have, except by personal communication with the noble Lord who puts it clown, no idea at all whether the Question is intended to be merely one for the eliciting of information, or whether it is intended to be the peg on which is to be hung an extensive debate. Let me give two illustrations, one past, the other prospective. The noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, the Leader of the Opposition, had down the other day upon the Paper a Question relating to military operations in Southern Persia. He put that Question, and the remarks he had to make with strict relevancy to the Question on the Paper. But so little was I conscious that the debate would be confined to that matter, so likely did it seen; to me that it would cover I lie whole field not only of Persian politics but much more, that I took the trouble in advance to prepare myself to make a statement, should it be so required, on the whole Persian situation. It was not required, and I was fortunately excused from the duty. On many other occasions out of a narrow Question has arisen a debate in which noble Lords have taken part wit) great authority and have expected fall replies.
I will give another illustration which is prospective. On the Order Paper is a Question down for Thursday of this week in the name of Lord Stuart of Wortley. It relates to the position in Poland. The Question is put in categorical form. If that Question were put in the House of Commons one would know exactly what it meant, and prepare the reply, which would be delivered by the Parliamentary under 623 Secretary. Indeed, in the Foreign Office the officials who are responsible for the preparation of answers, mistaking the Question for a House of Commons Question, submitted to me a reply which, had I read it in this House, would have occupied about one and a-half minutes of time. What guarantee have unless I can trust to the courtesy (if the noble Lord to inform me, that he is not going to speak for half an-hour about, Poland, that he is not going to raise the whole question, and that other noble Lords will not raise questions not merely about Poland but about Russia, about the Baltic States, about Yugo-Slavia, or anything that enters into their heads. Then, it the Minister here is not prepared at once to embrace this wide sphere of public interest, he is supposed not to be paying sufficient respect to your Lordships' House.
One other illustration will bring this home to your Lordships. We had in the last session of Parliament numerous debates about our prisoners of war in Germany, and on more than one occasion I was reproached by noble Lords opposite—Lord Beresford and Lord Devonport—because on those occasions no expression of general interest or sympathy had been received from this Bench on the matter of our prisoners abroad. The charge happened to be untrue, because on two occasions I had taken advantage of the opportunity to speak. But, my Lords, on none of those occasions had we any indication that a general debate was going to be raised. Suppose that the Question was put to Lord Newton. Lord Newton gets up and replies to it. Following upon that a number of noble Lords get up, in the exercise of their rights, in all parts of the House, and a debate, very likely occupying two or three hours, takes place. The Minister has already replied and exhausted his right to speak, and if the Leader of the House is not here to give some general expression of sympathy on the part of the Government—though we had no reason to suppose a debate was going to take place at all—he is liable to censure by some members of your Lordships' House.
How is it possible to escape from this difficulty—because, believe me, it is a genuine one, as anybody who has sat upon the Front Bench in this House knows? I venture with all diffidence to submit to your Lordships a suggestion. In another place there are two classes of Questions. 624 There are Questions which are put but answered upon paper, not put in the House; and there are Questions which are put in the House and answered by Ministers from the Front Bench. I would not propose any such differentiation here, but I would like to suggest to your Lordships that you should be willing to put your Questions in one or other of two categories. If you desire to put a Question for information, and you seek a reply only to the Question upon the Paper, I would suggest to your Lordships that in handing it in you should be willing to put it into a category confined to Questions of that nature, to which an asterisk might be fixed, and which might be taken in the order in which they are handed in, at the commencement of our proceedings. The Minister concerned, whatever Department he represented, would then know the kind of ordeal which faced him. He would know he had to supply information in reply to that Question, and was not expected to prepare himself for a general debate.
There arises upon this the matter of dealing with supplementaries. It may be said, How would you curtail supplementary Questions? Unfortunately we have not in this House the protection that exists in another place by the presence and the experience and authority of Mr. Speaker in the Chair. The Lord Chancellor is not permitted from the Woolsack to be the custodian of the order of our proceedings. The House is the custodian of its own order, and in this, as in all other cases, the only way to prevent disorderly or irregular proceedings is for the House to decide that they shall not be allowed. I think it is quite in the power of your Lordships' House, if a supplementary Question is put that is reasonable, to allow it to be put, and to suffer the Minister to reply to it; if it is unreasonable, to support the Minister in declining to reply. That is what is constantly done in another place. If a supplementary is put which ought not fairly to be put, a Minister asks for notice and declines to reply at the moment. That is a suggestion which I venture to submit as regards Questions put for information only.
But as regards Questions that are intended to be the subject of debate, whether they end in a Motion for Papers or not, how can we secure greater regularity? Only by strict adherence to our own Standing Orders. Here again I must re- 625 spectfully ask noble Lords to assist the Leader of the House, whoever he may be, in the matter. I think that it ought to be a common understanding, when the first; speech has been made, that the noble Lord who makes it is not at liberty to make a second, except within the narrow limitations that are enforced by the Standing Orders. It may be that you would require some slight exception to be made in the case of Ministers, not because a man is a Minister, but because further information may be sought from him which the House would desire to receive, and if it be the desire of the House to receive further information it will naturally be the desire of the Minister to give it. But, apart from that exception, I would earnestly ask noble Lords in the first place to be more scrupulous in their adherence to the Standing Orders, and I would ask the House in the second place to support the Government in making this appeal. It is perfectly in their power to do so, and I will indicate how. When first I attended your Lordships' House I remember speaking from that Bench and rising, in the course of the speech from this Bench which was delivered in reply to me, to interrupt the noble Lord who was replying.
I was greeted with loud cries of "Order, order," from Lord Rosebery. I said afterwards, "Why did you cry 'Order, order'?" He said, "Because you were speaking a second time. You had no right to speak a second time." The old rules of the House were implacably opposed to anything of the sort.
It is difficult for any individual noble Lord to move in the matter. It is true that we have had from time to time one or two noble Lords of great experience and standing who were in a certain sense the watch-dogs of this House. Lord Camperdown was one, and sometimes my noble friend Lord Harris assumes the functions. But it is a very difficult thing for any one man to get up and call attention to a breach of order, and it, is still more difficult—although I have heard it done—for a noble Lord to get up and move that another Peer shall no longer be heard. That has been done, but it requires great authority and sonic courage to do it. Where I think your Lordships can help is, on those occasions when rules are being disobeyed, to indulge generally in the cry of "Order, order" all round; or, if your Lordships would support those of us who 626 sit on this Bench in an incipient cry of "Order, order," I think that even the most ardent of your Lordships, greeted with a fusilade of that sort, would presently desist from the operation which he had in hand. That is a suggestion which I venture to make as regards Questions.
There is another small matter about which I am not quite clear, because it rests upon an interpretation of the Standing Orders. It sometimes happens that there are three or four Questions or Motions down on the Paper as to which, under the methods that I have described, we are absolutely in the dark whether the third or the fourth, let us say, will be reached at 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock, 7 o'clock, or not at all. And yet noble Lords may have come down here, on the one hand to put the Questions, on the other hand to answer them or to listen to the answers. The other day we had the case of my noble friend Lord Bryce, who came down to put an important Question upon Armenia. He was unable to put it until half-past seven, because there were other Questions which had priority, although they might have been of less importance. Under Standing Order XXI I think it would be open to the House to deal with a case of this sort, because that Standing Order provides that the House shall always proceed with Notices in the order in which they stand upon the Paper "unless the Lord who shall have given any such Notice shall withdraw the same, or shall, with the leave of the House, consent to its postponement." I wonder if on some occasion when there is a Question of importance coming on late in the afternoon it might not be possible—only of course with the consent, on the one hand, of the noble Lord who has priority, and, on the other hand, of the House to agree to the postponement of the Questions standing first and second on the Paper in order to admit a Question that stands later being taken in advance of them. You would have, of course, to rest assured that that privilege, if granted, was not abused, and I think that the guarantee would be found in the fact that for it would be required both the consent of the noble Lord chiefly concerned and of the House at large.
I apologise for having addressed you at length on this matter, but this is a matter of importance, not merely to ourselves but in the effect which our debates produce upon the public outside. I have not proposed the alteration of a single Standing Order. 627 The other day I suggested that we might perhaps have a Committee of your Lordships' House to consider alterations in Procedure, but I placed myself in the hands of the House and was willing to receive any suggestion that emanated from it. I have had conversations with noble Lords but no definite suggestions as to Procedure. I have wondered, therefore, whether it might not be possible by these methods of accommodation, adjustment, the reasonable interpretation of our own Procedure, to effect some improvement in these respects. I cannot force any ideas that I have put forward on the acceptance of your Lordships' House, but I submit them to your favourable consideration, asking you to believe that they are designed only to improve the efficiency of our business and the standing in the country of your Lordships' House.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
My Lords, the views of the noble Earl have been expressed with his usual clearness, and he has stated his ease with extreme moderation. I merely desire to make one or two general observations on certain points which he mentioned. In the first place as regards the hours of attendance, I think the house was convinced by the statement which the noble Earl made that it would hardly be possible on every day in the week to carry out the desire of the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, that public business should begin at 4 o'clock. I quite appreciate that on the days when your Lordships are sitting judicially some interval may be required before we meet for public business. I think, however, that the suggestion which the noble Earl made that on ordinary days where there is no private business of moment public business should begin at a quarter past four will prove to be for the general convenience—that is to say, that the noble Lord who has the first Motion on the Paper will have to be in his place by a quarter past four instead of now probably only thinking it necessary to come down at half past. In ordinary times private business often takes up the intervening quarter of an hour, and sometimes overflows long past the half hour. Of late years we have scarcely known cases of that kind, but it may often happen in ordinary circumstances that public business cannot be begun until some time after half past four.
Then as regards the time of adjournment 628 and the possibility of sitting frequently after dinner, I may remind your Lordships that the adjournment for dinner is an institution of quite modern growth. I do not think that until some ten or twelve years ago the House ever adjourned. It was found on the occasion of carrying through some heavy Bills in Committee that it was very hard upon the noble Lord in charge of the Bill to have to sit continuously; but even after the change was made in respect to those particular Bills it was always understood that a Second Reading, or a debate on foreign policy or on some general subject, was carried straight through without any adjournment, for dinner. And now when newspapers go early to Press—far earlier than they used in those days—I cannot help thinking that it would be a positive advantage for some noble Lords to be able to speak at 8 or half past, instead of having to put off their oratory till half past nine or ten o'clock, when there is no chance whatever of its being reported in the Press. I hope the noble Earl will bear in mind that when evening sittings are required, except when a big Bill is in Committee, it may be found more convenient to sit through the dinner hour instead of adjourning for it.
The noble Earl spoke of the habit of closing debates at a quarter past and half past seven instead of sitting on till 8 o'clock. Of course, if he is prepared to provide a Government speaker to fill up the interval it would often undoubtedly meet the case. But I am afraid it will be found in these days, when so many noble Lords have to depend on their two feet to get them home, that by about half past seven, supposing a noble Lord desires to return home to dinner, the House would begin to empty, and the eloquence of the noble Lord who filled up the breach to the hour of eight is likely to have but few auditors. I quite agree that if it is possible to get the House to sit later oftener, as the days get longer, it will be all to the good. I do not know that I should altogether agree as regards this House with Moore's lines that—The best of all waysTo lengthen our daysIs to steal a few hours from the night.On the contrary, I believe half an hour at the beginning of business is worth an hour or two later in the day. But all these devices, I think, ought to be adopted with a view of saving our time.
629 There is one point, however, to which the noble Earl drew no attention. It is a new thing that we should sit only three days a week; it is certainly only since the war, and I am not quite sure that the practice even began with it. Ever since I have known your Lordships' House, Monday has been one of the regular sitting days and was often given up to important business. Therefore if we find that we are really getting short of time I hope the noble Earl will consider whether we ought not to return to four days a week; and if four days. I sincerely hope the fourth will be Monday and not Friday, which I think will probably suit the convenience of the majority of your Lordships, although some of us may not be affected by it. So much for the hours and days of meeting. Then as regards the possible alterations in debate—
§ EARL CURZON OF KELDLESTON
I wonder if the noble Marquess approves of the suggestion I ventured to put forward about Wednesday. He has not mentioned that.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
I am much obliged to the noble Earl. I think that, so far as Wednesday is concerned, so long as the House is not sitting judicially the proposal of the noble Earl will be found very useful. The noble Earl will remember, of course, that although the sittings of your Lordships' House in their judicial capacity do not in any way depend upon the rising of the Courts in the Long Vacation, yet when the judicial business of the House is completed, as often happens, in the course of the Parliamentary session, then the House ceases so to sit, and all days will then be alike. But if and when that happens then no doubt the noble Earl will be prepared, if necessary, either to apply the Wednesday procedure to other days or to make some other modification as circumstances may demand.
Now as regards the procedure in debate, of which the noble Earl spoke. I think, if I may say so, that he adopted the right course in not attempting to amend the Standing Orders in any respect. Some years ago we had a close examination of the Standing Orders relating to business with the same view of seeing if our procedure could be in some way modernised and accelerated, but the results of the examination were rather disappointing, and in the end only some quite minor changes 630 were made. I think the noble Earl is right in depending upon something like a change of attitude in your Lordships' House generally for the occasional curtailment of debate, and also in enforcing adherence to the particular point under discussion. Certainly your Lordships have grown either very much kinder or very much more slack in those directions since the days when I joined the House. In those days it was the commonest things for the speaker. I will not say to be shouted down, because that would not be the proper expression, but to be made to see that the desire of the House that he should not continue his speech was so marked that, unless he was an in usually thick-skinned person he was apt to start his peroration long before it was due; and without going to the extreme length of moving, "that the noble Lord be not heard," which I myself only remember to have heard moved on three occasions, it is possible to make tip indications which I have described.
Whether it is that the assuaging of the Party spirit generally and the absence of questions of acute political interest has somewhat dulled the interest in your Lordships' House from the Party point of view, I cannot say, but the fact undoubtedly remains that speakers are far less interfered with than they used to be many years ago. One result is that the average speeches on important natters are far longer than was the case when I first came to the House. It has always been a subject of regret among the older members of the House that more of those who have recently come to the House do not take part in the discussions. But that has been a matter of regret ever since those of us who have been here the longest can remember the House. It is very difficult, as those who have sat on either Front Bench will agree, for the Front Bench Peers not to take up too large a portion, as they feel, of the time in debate; but circumstances make it very difficult to avoid it on many occasions, and all that any of us can do is to encourage in every possible way other noble Lords who are willing to try their wings in debate.
Then on the point which the noble Lord raised of the uncertainty which a Minister feels, when he sees a Question on the Paper, as to whether it is merely a Question or intended as a peg on which to hang a long speech leading to a long debate, my recollection is that on a great many 631 occasions when I was a Minister and the latter result was intended noble Lords informed me beforehand that it was desired to raise the whole subject, and very often they mentioned the specific points upon which it was intended to dwell. My impression is that the noble Earl himself, when he was on this side of the House and I was on that, has on several occasions favoured me with that courtesy; and I am only sorry that on the particular occasion which he mentioned—that of the quite narrow Question as to operations in Southern Persia which I put down on the Paper the other day—the noble Earl should have supposed that had I intended to raise a debate on Persia generally I should not have informed him that that was the purpose of my Question.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
I have no complaint against the noble Marquess. He would have undoubtedly done so. But the weak point in the position which he is taking up is this, that the action of the noble Lord who puts down the Question, and who has the courtesy to give notice to the Government, does not govern anybody else who rises to speak. In my own knowledge there have been frequent occasions when, Questions having been put by a noble Lord with proper explanation, that has not prevented half a dozen other noble Lords from getting up and converting a Question of minor importance into one of major importance.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
In cases of that kind I think a Minister has this defence. When he sees that the subject is spreading like a drop of oil upon water, when he sees that it is beginning to assume a larger aspect, it is within his power to rise and stop the discussion by saying that he is not prepared to proceed with it on those lines, and asking other noble Lords to give notice by putting separate Questions on the Paper. That is a course which I have seen pursued, and which I imagine I have myself pursued. It is a safeguard of which I think the House would certainly approve. The noble Earl, I think, did not tell us how he proposed to meet the difficulty which he mentioned of those noble Lords who finished off a Question with a Motion of some kind, either for Papers, or a Motion, not seriously intended, for reference to a Committee. Those cases are, as I think the noble Earl told us, very 632 difficult to meet. It is hard to curtail the liberty of the house in that matter, and I very much doubt whether the House at large would agree to have its power of making Motions curtailed in any respect. Therefore if noble Lords persist in putting down Questions with Motions tied to their tail, with the object of being able to make a second speech, I confess I do not see what there is to be done, except to return to our primitive methods and express the disapprobation of the House at the time by vocal means.
I think it would be a desirable thing that the rule of limiting speeches altogether, where there is no Motion, should be strictly enforced; that where a noble Lord puts a Question on the Paper it should be understood it is a Question and a Question only, and even though, according to the long-standing liberty of your Lordships' House, he is able to make something of a speech when putting the Question, in no circumstances should he be able to reply. Also in those cases no other noble Lord ought to be allowed to intervene in the debate at all, and in cases where there is no Motion no other noble Lord ought, according to the strict interpretation of the Standing Orders, to be allowed to take part. If that was understood it would not be necessary to star Questions, because a Question would simply be a Question, and a Motion would be a Motion, with all the freedom and even laxity which so far as I can see must attach to the making of Motions, unless the liberties of the House are to be curtailed in a way to which it would probably not consent.
I think those are all the points which the noble Earl mentioned. I am very glad that he raised the matter, and I hope, although the House was not very full, that the speech of the noble Earl will be read by many noble Lords in the OFFICIAL DEBATES, because it is upon a general appreciation of the difficulties, and of the effect upon your Lordships' credit in the eyes of the country, that the importance of this matter depends. I am sorry that the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, is not in his place, because I had hoped be might have been able to give us the benefit of his advice as a former Leader of the House. I think, however, that what has fallen from the noble Earl opposite has obtained the general agreement of your Lordships.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
My Lords, may I, with the permission of the House, say one word only in reply to, the observation of the noble Marquess towards the close of his speech. I hope he will not too hastily condemn the suggestion of starred Questions. His alternative, I think, was this—that cute is to assume that a Question in future, starred or unstarred, is a Question only, and that if a debate is to arise the Question should always terminate in a Motion, which would indicate that a debate was going to be raised, and this only in the latter case would any speech other than that of the mover be permitted. I am not certain that in practice that would not be a little harsh. I think I have known occasions on which a Question put for the purpose of information has quite legitimately provoked another Question or Questions arising out of it, put by other noble Lords; and when I suggest asterisked Questions I do not mean in all cases that Questions of that sort which are in their essence supplementary should not be put. There is also this point, that we might tempt noble Lords on a larger scale to terminate with Motions. That is a consequence which I think is not desired. Therefore I should like the House to make the experiment of starred Questions, and see how it works. If it is a success, it can be continued; if it is not a success, we can introduce some modification.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
Is the proposal then that if a Question is starred all the noble Lords in the House can make a speech on it?
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
I certainly do not propose that; but I do want to lay down the rule, which I thought the noble Marquess had suggested, that the only occasions on which anybody other than the mover should say anything was when there was a Motion.
§ LORD SOUTHWARK
With regard to starred Questions, I do not know whether it has occurred to your Lordships that there are a great number of noble Lords who seldom attend this House. If we had starred Questions it might be that those noble Lords would write out Questions, send them down as starred Questions, and then ask other noble Lords, in their absence, to be good enough to put the Questions. I only throw out the suggestion 634 that you might be manufacturing a large amount of work for the different Departments, because we all know—as an old member of the House of Commons I know—that a Question which looks very simple on the Paper may cause a large amount of work in the Department. I suggest that before you adopt the starring system there should be rules and regulations in connection with putting the Question, and that the noble Lord who stars a Question, should himself put it.
§ LORD STUART OF WORTLEY
My Lords, as my Question of Thursday has been referred to, I wish to show the courtesy due to the noble Earl who leads the House by saying that I have taken perhaps the unusual course of putting in the most specific shape all the interrogatories to which I hope an answer will be given. I admit I have done so in the expectation that the usual consequences will follow. I also adroit I have tone so, I will not say in the expectation, but in the hope that the noble Lord who answers the questions will answer them all and will not retire behind a smoke cloud of ambiguity. In respect of any question he does not answer, all I can say is that if the noble Lord will frankly tell your Lordships it is not in the public interest that it should be answered I should be the very last to complain.
LORD ST. LEVAN
My Lords, I wish to call attention to one point raised by the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, in connection with Monday sittings. It would be very difficult to get to London on Sunday from a long distance. I do not know how noble Lords who come from Scotland and Ireland would be affected, but I can say that so far as I am concerned it would be impossible for me to leave home on Monday and get here in time for a debate in this House. I mention the fact as I hope it may receive consideration when a decision is taken.
My Lords, as one who sometimes asks Questions I should like to associate myself rather with the noble Earl the Leader of the House in the suggestion to star Questions, and not with what was said by the noble Marquess on the Front. Bench below me, I think the House itself would probably regret that any Questions which did not conclude with a Motion should be limited merely to the observations of the questioners. We have often seen a debate arise, and there may be four 635 speeches, including flee reply, within twenty minutes, and all the speakers may have said things which the House would be glad to hear said. I think it would have the result of leading to more Questions ending with a Motion, which I should deplore.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, after what has been said I hardly dare to speak again, but I may say, arising out of the answer of my noble friend, that I would like to ask him how he proposes to proceed after this discussion. Personally, I have been left with rather a vague impression as to the general effect of some of the details of what has been suggested. I am speaking entirely for myself but I should feel much more satisfied if the outcome of this conversation were the appointment of a Committee of your Lordships' House who would draw up a formal Report embodying such of the proposals of the noble Earl as the Committee may think expedient. I think there is general assent to the spirit of the noble Earl's proposals, but if we are to know exactly how we stand it will be necessary to put them in writing, and I see no means of doing that except by a Report of a Select Committee. Therefore I should rather revert to a suggestion which the noble Earl himself made on a previous occasion that a Select Committee should be appointed.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
My Lords, as regards the last suggestion I am really in the hands of the House. I myself a fortnight ago made the proposal of a Select Committee to discuss not merely such changes as I have suggested to-day, but any larger changes which might be in the minds of noble Lords. Therefore I cannot consistently, of course, oppose the idea of a Select Committee. I should like, however, a little time to find out whether noble Lords in general feel that such a procedure is desirable. If there were a general consensus in favour of the not very considerable changes I have suggested to-day, I would point out that it would be quite easy to bring them into practice at once. By "at once" I do not mean to-morrow or within twenty-four or forty-eight hours. All that would be required would be that on the last day that we sit this week it should be moved that the House be adjourned to such and such an hour on the first day on which we meet next week—at 4.15 instead of 4.30— 636 and that on Tuesday when the Motion is made to adjourn, it should be proposed that the House be adjourned till 3.45 on Wednesday. That would be a perfectly simple procedure. It would not require the Report of a Committee or any change in the Standing Order. As to starred Questions, there again I would myself be inclined to trust to the initiative of noble Lords, and that they themselves in going to the Clerk at the Table to hand in Questions, should evince their own desire to have an asterisk prefixed to it. For my own part, I am not disposed to think, if the changes are generally acceptable, that there will be need of a Select Committee. But perhaps I may be allowed to wait a day or two to consult other opinions before coming to a final judgment.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
May I ask one point in explanation as to starred Questions? Starred Questions would, as I understand, serve two objects. They would meet the convenience of Ministers who have to answer them, because they would be taken before all other business. Even on Tuesdays and Thursdays they would be taken, as I understand before public Bills. That is one advantage, an advantage which chiefly concerns noble Lords opposite. I think that would require an alteration in the Standing Orders, as a matter of fact. That, however, is one proposition, and no doubt would meet very often the convenience of the noble Lord who has to put the Question, and also that of Ministers, whom it is an infliction to keep on the Bench possibly through a long debate before answering a Question. The only other difference, so far as I understand it, would be that the noble Lord who puts the Question would not have any right of reply. In all other respects the procedure would be the same as at present when a Question is asked.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
He would have exactly the right of reply which is given by the Standing Orders now, and which is subject to the four limitations I named after reading from the Standing Order. He will be in the same position as he is now.
§ EARL STANHOPE
My Lords, the course of the debate shows that it is not easy to keep within the rules of the Standing Orders. We are debating now something which has nothing to do with the 637 words on the Paper, and I venture to remind your Lordships that we have had more than one speech from several noble Lords.
§ LORD AMPTHILL
My Lords, as everybody is speaking four or five times, perhaps I may be allowed to make a remark. I wish only to take up the statement made by the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, which interested me profoundly—namely, that there is always a fervent desire on the part of both Front Benches to encourage back benchers to speak I have been a member of this House for nearly thirty years—that I suppose is longer than the average member—and (I daresay it is my own stupidity) I have never been aware of that desire before. On the contrary, I have always gone away with the impression that speeches by those not on the Front Benches or others who are close adherents of those on the Front Bench were strongly discouraged. It is true that we are invited most cordially to speak to fill up the dinner hour or to pad out a debate in order that some Ministerial speaker may move the adjournment so that he can speak first next day, but not on other occasions. We hear complaints that; the House is badly attended. I join with those who deplore it. But until you do encourage back benchers, and really encourage them, you will not get a good attendance.