HL Deb 02 April 1924 vol 57 cc72-81

LORD NEWTON had the following Notice on the Paper:—

To draw attention to the provisions of Standing Order No. XXI. which give precedence to Bills on both Tuesdays and Thursdays, and to the difficulty which those provisions cause in arranging the business of the House for the general convenience of Peers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I put this Notice upon the Paper with a double purpose—in the first instance, to emphasise the uncertainty which prevails in this House with regard to the time when important debates will be taken; and in the second place, with regard to the threatened congestion of business if we continue, to sit for only three days a week. Bearing in mind the admonition of my noble friend Lord Curzon I will make a point of being as short as possible.

First, with regard to the question of uncertainty as to when debates take place. We sit, as everybody knows, on three days in the week—Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays Bills have priority. In practice, I cannot help thinking that this works with very unsatisfactory results, as has been shown quite recently. Noble Lords will recollect that only about ten days ago an important debate was announced to take place on the question of Singapore. Owing to a number of Bilk having been put down in front of it, the Singapore Motion did not come on until about half-past six in the evening, and the debate was adjourned. Precisely the same thing occurred later. I do not think the Singapore debate on the second occasion was taken before about six o'clock, or half-past six, in the evening. The result was a very unsatisfactory Division, because, as always happens, nearly everybody had gone away, and the numbers of the Division did not really give any indication of the importance of the decision.

There was a still more unsatisfactory instance of this yesterday. Yesterday the pièce de réistance was to have been a discussion on the League of Nations, and arrangements were made—elaborate arrangements, I believe—long beforehand under which the most important members of this House were going to deliver speeches, but then the Lord Chancellor, in whom I had not recognised a practical joker, intervened with a ponderous and dismal Scottish Bill, upon which he spoke himself for three-quarters of an hour, no doubt with great enjoyment, and was followed by other noble Lords who imitated his example. The result was that we never had the debate on the League of Nations at all. It was adjourned until to-day. I regret that it is apparent, partly owing to noble Lords, including myself, having Motions on the Paper, that there is a strong prospect that the discussion will not take place today until an inconveniently late hour.

I remember an occasion last year—I forget what the precise question was—when there was to have been a very important debate here, so much so that almost for the first time, in my life I was asked by friends to secure them tickets for admission to the Gallery. The House was thronged, the galleries were thronged, and all that those people who came here heard, and all that noble Lards who were present heard, was a long discussion on polygamy, or monogamy, or some subject of that kind, and the important debate was never reached at all. To my mind this is a source of considerable inconvenience. It must, be a considerable inconvenience to the noble Lords of whom I have spoken, those who, perhaps, without disrespect, I might term the heavyweights of this House, and who must necessarily suffer from suppressed speech. But the inconvenience reflects upon the other members of the House, because you never know what really is going to happen. You have no certainty that any particular debate will take place on a particular day, owing to the fact; that any Peer is at liberty to put down a Motion respecting a Bill, however unimportant its character may be, only twenty-four hours beforehand.

I know in advance what will be said to me when I suggest that in order to remedy this inconvenience priority for Bills should be given only on one day in the week, and that on the other two days Motions should be taken according to the date on which they are put upon the Paper. I know that I shall be told by my noble friend Lord Donoughmore that Bills are very much more important than Motions. I am quite prepared to dispute that view, and I dispute it in a perfectly impartial frame of mind, because I have frequently introduced Bills into this House—admirable Bills, I might say—which have never become law for the reason that they have perished in another place. The Bills that we discuss in this House are of two kinds. There are the Bills which are brought forward by the Government, and which pass, and there are the Bills introduced by private members like myself, which do not pass. It seems to me that it is more important, on the whole, to discuss a serious Motion than it is to spend a lot of time in discussing a private member's Bill which has no chance of becoming law. I hold very strongly the view that by far the most valuable advantage which this House enjoys is the power of interpolating Ministers, and forcing from them explanations as to then policy I attach far more importance to that than I do to obtaining time for the discussion of Bills which are never likely to pass into law. For that reason I suggest that it might be a more practical course to adopt the suggestion which I have just made.

I pass from that to say a few words upon the subject of the possible congestion of business in this House. In this connection, although I am no friend of the present Government, I am bound to admit that they are evidently going to make more use of this House for the purpose of furthering legislation than their predecessors made. When I first became a member of this House we used to sit on four days, and the result was there was no congestion of business; in fact, I remember we used at times to meet at half-past, four and adjourn at twenty-five minutes to five. All that is over now. Members are more industrious, and there is considerably more work to do. My noble friend Lord Curzon—I believe I am correct in making this statement—during the war reduced the four days to three. Let me say at once that I sympathise with the noble Lords who occupy official positions in wishing to sit on as few days as possible. I sympathise with that view because, for four years, I was a very minor Minister myself, and I candidly confess that there was nothing I disliked so intensely as to have to come down here and answer questions, more especially when I was not in agreement with the answers that I had to give. Therefore, I entirely sympathise with the official view.

But the fact is that for the purpose of effective debate there are really only about nine or ten hours of the week, and I entirely disagree with the view of my noble friend Lord Curzon that half past six is just as good an hour as half past four. To my mind there is no comparison. You might as well say that the drumstick of a chicken was just as nutritious and good to eat as the breast and wing. There is no comparison between the two things. A noble Lord hardly ever gets up in this House after six o'clock without apologising for what he calls the lateness of the hour. If he rises at seven o'clock he has no occasion to apologise at all, because there will be nobody here in all probability, except the noble Viscount upon the Woolsack, the Minister who has to reply to him, and the Clerks at the Table. They will constitute his audience, and therefore there will be no one to whom to apologise. In addition to that, as everybody goes away at half past six or seven o'clock, a Division is more or less out of the question, and a perfectly superfluous and useless luxury, because under one of the Standing Orders of the House, unless thirty members take part in a Division, that Division does not count.

As a sample of the work which we do, I would like to call attention to the Order Paper for Tuesday, March 25. On that day there were down for discussion the Second Reading of the Dogs Protection Bill, the Legitimacy Bill, the Advertisements Regulation Bill, for which I was responsible, the Marriages Validity (Provisional Orders) Bill, the Auxiliary Air Force and Air Force Reserve Bill, the Second Readings of the Housing Bill and the Housing (Scotland) Bill, a Question by Lord Gorell on the subject of child adoption, a very long Question by Lord Danesfort about the Wood-Renton Commission, and, finally, a Question by Lord Desborough on the subject of a fixed date for Easter. That is an Agenda which really might have occupied weeks. Of course, it was impossible to deal adequately with the whole of these subjects. I should like to have the candid opinion of Lord Banbury of Southam who was one of the greatest masters in dilatory Parliamentary practices that this generation has known. When my noble friend sees the amount of business which is gone through here, the way in which we literally gallop through measures of first- and second-class importance, it must give him an even lower opinion of Parliamentary institutions that he has held up to now.

I think I have said enough to prove my point, and all I desire to do, in conclusion, is to suggest two alternatives. One is that, instead of allotting, two days for Bills, we should allot one day only—that is if we adhere to three days' sitting per week—and the alternative is that we should sit on Mondays as we used to do. In spite of the rapidity with which we do our work, I do not think we present a very industrious spectacle. We sit for nine or ten hours in the course of a week. The House of Commons sits for a minimum of 38 hours, not counting overtime in the shape of all-night sittings and suspensions of the eleven o'clock rule. These are the alternatives which I put before the House. I put down my Notice for the purpose of ascertaining the general opinion of the House upon the question. I have no intention of moving the appointment of a Committee or anything of the kind, because it is not of sufficient importance for that.


My Lords, this is a matter for the House to deal with, not for the Government. I appreciate to a considerable extent the criticisms which the noble Lord has addressed to us as to the conditions at the present moment. It may be claimed on behalf of the present Government that within the limitation of subjects suitable for introduction and discussion in this House, we have utilised the time of this House to the maximum possible advantage both to noble Lords themselves and the way public business should be brought before this House. The noble Lord has suggested two alternatives. It is not for me to make any suggestion, it is for the House alone; but I admit that of the two I prefer that we should revert to Monday sittings. I am sure members of the Government who are present would not in any way resent what the noble Lord termed a toilsome and irksome duty if by performing such a duty the business of this House could be carried on in a more satisfactory manner. I can assure your Lordships, on behalf of the Government, that we will do all in our power to carry out whatever are the desires of the House in the matter and see that business is conducted in a more efficient and effective manner.


My Lords, the matter is left in rather an indecisive position. The noble Lord has made a series of alternative proposals which really raise issues of considerable magnitude. If they are adopted not only would they affect the sittings of the House during the present Session of Parliament but, as I understand, he proposes a permanent alteration in our Parliamentary procedure as it affects this House. He proposes that we shall accept as a rule of our procedure that we shall always sit four days in the week in order to enable my noble friend and persons of his kidney to multiply the already somewhat excessive number of Motions which they put down upon the Paper, it clearly is not my business at this moment to enter into a discussion with my noble friend as to the manner in which we have hitherto proceeded. All I say is that his account of our proceedings was a caricature in which I found no resemblance to the facts.

For instance, I wonder if my noble friend has made any study of our Divisions. He laid it down that serious business in this House could not be taken, and was not in practice taken, after five or six o'clock; that nobody was in the House at that time and that our proceedings were reduced from that time onwards almost to an absurdity. That is not the least the case. If the Division Lists of this House and the time at which they were taken were shown it would be found that day after day, and week after week, your Lordships' House sits not until six or half-past six, but up to seven and eight o'clock, and when he appeals to previous experience I am just as qualified to give an opinion about that as he is himself. It is not the case that the House generally adjourns at the earlier hour. I should' say, on the contrary, that the majority of Divisions take place at a later hour. I entirely deprecate our laying down the rule that after a two hours' sitting this House should disappear, because it has no more business to do, or because people will not stay to listen to speeches. As I said yesterday, if they will not stay to listen to speeches after half-past six, why should they come here to listen to my noble friend on Mondays? People will stay and Lords will stay if they are interested; in the subject. Take, for instance, the subject which we are going to discuss this afternoon—the League of Nations—I wish it could have been taken yesterday—noble Lords will stay if they are interested, whether it be five o'clock or six o'clock they will stay.

I think my noble friend is entirely wrong in the disparaging remarks he uttered with regard to legislation. Your Lordships' House is a Second Chamber, a revising chamber, but a revising chamber of the Legislature, and one of your main functions is to initiate and pass Bills yourselves or consider, discuss and reject Bills which come up from another place. I could not by any means accept the proposition that our main function is a sort of academic discussion about any Resolution which any one chooses to put down. That is not what we are here for. If you analyse the kind of Bills that come before us, remember that not only do we deal with Government Bills but that an opportunity is afforded to any noble Lord to introduce legislation, as my noble friend has frequently done. If the Bills which he introduces do not pass into law when they go to another place, or perhaps are not taken up there at all, that is no argument against this House as a legislative chamber. Many invaluable measures have been introduced here by private members, discussed here, failing perhaps on the first or second or third introduction, but ultimately public opinion is aroused and you get a large body of sentiment behind your views which enables you to proceed.

But I do not desire to dispute the case with the noble Lord now. The noble Lord, Lord Parmoor, said justly that this is a matter for the decision of the House, but clearly it is not a matter for the decision of the thirty or forty members who happen at the present moment to be upon these Benches. It would be an entirely wrong procedure if we were to institute a great change in Parliamentary procedure with this limited number of noble Lords present. I remember that, when I was leading the House from the Bench opposite, a similar question came up, and a proposal was made, I think by myself, and was accepted, that the matter ought to be seriously examined by a body representing the House. I think my noble friend was not altogether justified in deprecating the appointment of a Committee.


I do not mind it.


Very well. I should have thought that a Committee was emphatically the body that ought to examine this matter, and I would suggest to the Government that, perhaps after consultation between the two Front Benches, they might be disposed to appoint a Committee. On all these occasions we have previously had the advantage of having my noble friend Lord Donoughmore in the chair. Nobody is more conversant with the business and the traditions of this House than the noble Earl. I think it ought to be quite possible to appoint a small Committee of six or seven members—I will not specify the number now, and I need not indicate the composition—and instruct them to examine into the proposal of the noble Lord and to submit their recommendations to the House. That seems to me to be the best way of dealing with the matter. I will not proceed further, because I am as anxious as anybody that the Motion which appears later upon the Paper should be discussed without further delay.


My Lords, I rise only to say that the Government are quite agreeable to this suggestion of a Committee, and that they accede to the proposition that the noble Marquess has made. I find myself almost entirely in agreement with his observations. It would be impossible to get through Government business if Bills took precedence on only one day a week. We have had a great many Government Bills this year, and we may have a great many more in the part of the Session that lies ahead. In the later part of the Session we may be compelled to sit on Mondays—I think we shall—to deal with the amount of Government business that is likely to come on. For myself, if I were giving evidence before this Committee, I should submit that the prospect of getting through the work which devolves upon this House without having two days a week upon which Bills should take precedence would not be very favourable. I entirely agree with the remarks of the noble Marquess concerning the Standing Orders which experience has shown to be desirable.

Even in my time I remember this House sitting almost regularly until a quarter to eight. Now the great difficulty is to get noble Lords to sit after seven. I think we shall have to reform our ways in that respect, and get into the habit of sitting regularly until eight; and, with the existing volume of business, I for my part see no reason why a quarter to eight at least should not be the normal time for adjourning. The Committee, however, will investigate this subject, and, if ray noble friend Lord Donoughmore takes a leading part in its proceedings, I have no doubt that we shall be supplied with complete material from which to judge the position


My Lords, may I say in one sentence that my services are, of course, at your Lordships' disposal in this as in all other matters. There is, I think, one special reason why a Committee should sit to examine this subject. We really have still to elucidate the facts. The Standing Order to which my noble friend objects dates from 1852. It was passed sub silentio in your Lordships' House, without any discussion, on the proposition of my noble predecessor, Lord Redesdale, and I have been quite unable to ascertain how that came about. I think it will be interesting to elucidate that fact. I should not like to conclude without making one other observation. One of the complaints of my noble friend opposite was, I think, that the House rarely sits after half-past six. Fortunately I had the figures in my pocket, and I have been able to look them up. The facts are that we have sat for twenty-five days this Session, and on eighteen of those days we have adjourned after half-past six.