HL Deb 03 March 1925 vol 60 cc338-48

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill has had a rather remarkable history. It has been approved by four Governments—by a Coalition Government, by a Conservative Government, by a Labour Government, and by the present Government. It has also had a rather chequered career, because on two occasions it was cut in half by the arrival of a General Election, and on the last occasion that it appeared before your Lordships it was rejected in this House by a very small majority in a very small House. It comes up. therefore, now for the fourth time. But it comes up on this occasion in rather a different form from that in which it appeared before. It has on this occasion sought and has obtained the asylum of the Speaker's Certificate as a Money Bill, and it comes before your Lordships with a "safe conduct" in this House. When it was discussed in another place there was no Division of any kind throughout the whole proceedings on the Bill.

As its provisions are familiar to your Lordships I shall take up a few moments only in explaining them. During the war a number of prohibitions were imposed in the public interest. For instance, brewers were forbidden to brew beer beyond a certain quantity and a particular quality, and merchants were forbidden to sell flour in certain districts or only at particular prices. It often happened, however, that licences were sought and were granted by the Government to do some of these prohibited acts. For instance, ships could not be sold to foreigners during the war, but in some cases they were sold under licence and in those cases fees were taken, not unfairly, for the licences. In the case of ships 15 per cent. was taken by the Government. I should like to make it quite clear that there was nothing compulsory about these licences. No one need take out a licence who did not want to do so, and it will be admitted that on the general equities of the case it was perfectly fair in time of war for the Government to take these fees. A decision of the Courts, however, decided that these fees were illegal, and the object of this Bill is to validate the fees and charges that were collected. If the total amount of these fees and charges could be handed back it would amount to no less than a charge of £18,000,000 on the taxpayer. Of course, that amount could not be collected as, by the Act of 1020, a great many of these cases are barred, because many of these actions had to be brought within one year of the termination of the war. But supposing some of these fees and charges were given back it would be a little hard on those persons who were not quick enough in bringing their cases before the Courts and who had perhaps refrained from doing so because the Government had stated that they were going to bring in a Bill to validate these charges. That is really the whole contents of this Bill.

Contrary to the procedure in the other Bill all the particular cases are set out clearly in the Schedule of this Bill, and where actions have been brought in the Courts very ample provision is made for paying the costs and charges of litigants. Further, there is no judgment against the Government in any of these cases and, therefore, this Bill, which validates these charges, does not upset any judgment that has been given in the Courts. In these circumstances, and especially as it was obviously right and fair that these fees should be charged—no one raised any objection to them—I hope your Lordships will give a Second Beading to the Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Peel.)

LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM had given Notice to move, as an Amendment, that the Bill be read a second time this day six months. The noble Lord said: My Lords, my noble friend Viscount Peel has told your Lordships that this Bill legalises certain charges which the Courts have held to be illegal. That, if he will allow me to say so, is a very good description of the Bill. The Bill raises two very important constitutional points. The first point is that it endeavours to legalise certain charges which were made by certain Departments in contravention of the old understanding, by which this country has been governed ever since the days of ship money, which compels any Government who desire to impose a charge upon the people to obtain the consent of the House of Commons. This consent was not obtained, and consequently the charges were held by the Courts to be illegal. Then, in order to put themselves in the right, the Departments concerned persuaded, I think, either three or four successive Governments to bring in Bills legalising the wrong-doing.

I venture to say that this is an extremely bad precedent which we ought not to follow and which we ought not to allow. In fact, last year your Lordships rejected this Bill on the Second Beading. My noble friend Lord Peel said that it was by a small majority, but small majorities are very often right, and the effect was exactly the same whether the majority was small or large. It has been said that unless this Bill is passed it will involve the country in a very large expenditure. I think that the Labour Government at one time actually talked about £17,000,000 or £18,000,000. This was afterwards reduced to a very much smaller sum, something like £500,000, and I believe that in the House of Commons this year the sum mentioned by the critics—for there were critics of the Bill; it is quite true that the House did not divide, but some of the most eminent constitutionally-minded members of the House of Commons opposed the Bill—was reduced, I think, to something like £200,000. But I do not care what the amount is. It is the principle that matters, that you must not do, in these days, that which Parliament refused Charles I permission to do—namely, to levy taxation without the consent of Parliament.

There is another, and I do not know that it is not a still more important constitutional change that arises from these Bills. I am glad to see the noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith, present, because, unless my memory plays me false, ho has or had some knowledge of the Parliament Act, and the procedure which I am now venturing to criticise is the procedure which has been used under that Act. My noble friend Lord Peel, as I understood him, said that there was some difference between the Bill of last year and this Bill. I have the two Bills in my hand, and I will begin, first of all, at the wrong end and take the Schedules. The Schedule of this Bill and the Schedule of the last Bill are absolutely the same. There is no change in them whatever. When, however, we come to part of Clause I in the old Bill, we find that the milk charges have been exempted. There was no necessity to insert those words in the old Bill because the charges were imposed only upon those articles which were mentioned in the Schedule, and milk was not mentioned in the Schedule. The reason why milk was mentioned in the last Bill was that when the Bill was introduced the charges on milk were included, but in the House of Commons last year an Amendment was moved and accepted by the Government leaving out those charges, and consequently there was a little confusion in the drafting which makes no difference whatever to the Bill, because in neither Schedule was milk included.

Turning again to Clause I, I find three paragraphs with (a), (b) and (c) against them. Paragraphs (a) and (b) have been merged into one sentence, and (c) has been left out. Now paragraph (c) in the old Bill was for services rendered, and accordingly, whatever charges were made for services rendered in the old Bill, which was not certified as a Money Bill, are left out of this Bill. Last year's Bill, therefore, was more of a Money Bill than this year's Bill, and yet, notwithstanding that fact, we now find that this year's Bill is certified as a Money Bill. I venture to say that this raises a very important question. Under the Parliament Act, as your Lordships all know, if a Bill is certified as a Monty Bill you can reject it hero and it then goes back to the House of Commons, and, if they do not otherwise determine within a month, it goes to His Majesty the King for Royal Assent. Now I suggest to your Lordships that you should reject this Bill and rend it back to the House of Commons, in order to give them an opportunity of considering how it is that a Bill which last year was not a Money Bill and which this year imposes a smaller charge than the Bill of last year, now becomes a Money Bill.

Your Lordships must remember that this may create a precedent, and that if in the future a Bill comes up to your Lordships' House which you reject on Second Reading, and there is another Speaker, perhaps less scrupulous than this Speaker, in the Chair, he may say: "The Lords rejected this Bill; I will see that they do not reject the next, because I will certify it as a Money Bill." There is no appeal from Mr. Speaker's decision. The only possible appeal is to send back the Bill to the House of Commons in the hope that the good sense of the House of Commons will prevail, and that a Bill which last year was not a Money Bill shall not this year become a Money Bill. The question, I believe, has been raised whether there ought not to be some reform in your Lordships' House. I think this shows that some reform, at any rate in this direction, is absolutely necessary, and that it should not be left in the power of one man to say one year one thing and another year another. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Leave out ("now") and at the end of the Motion insert ("this day six months").—(Lord Banbury of Southam.)


My Lords, I shall intervene only for one or two minutes in this debate, because I know that your Lordships are anxious to pass on to other business. I need scarcely say, in view of the attitude of the Labour Government last year on this matter, that I rise to support the Bill and to oppose the Amendment which has been moved by the noble Lord opposite. The noble Viscount who moved the Second Reading pointed out that this is now the fourth Parliament in which this matter has been discussed, and it therefore follows that pretty nearly every permutation and combination of thought in regard to it has already found expression.

But it is a unique Bill, not only because it deals with a set of circumstances which has not arisen before, but also because it has provided your Lordships' House with the extraordinary and, indeed, unnatural spectacle of the noble Lord opposite, Lord Banbury, that relentlessly vigilant custodian of the national expenditure, actually urging—he did so last year and has done so, in effect, again to-day—that a sum which may amount to as much as £18,000,000 of the taxpayers' money should be given to people who have no moral claim to it whatever. The noble Lord seemed to think that no such sum was in question. That is not so. If he will refer to the debate in another place on the 19th of last month he will find there the authority for what I say. In certain circumstances this may mean £18,000,000 of the taxpayers' money being given away. £18,000,000 is a very large sum, somewhere about 4d in the £ on the Income Tax for one year, and I think it will be very interesting to contrast the attitude of the noble Lord to-day and last year with what he will no doubt have to say a little later in the Session on the Budget as to the vital necessity of reducing the Income Tax.

The noble Lord says that that is not the point—that it is not a question of money, whether the sum be largo or small, but a question of principle and of right or wrong. Very well, but I would remind the noble Lord that what is right or wrong is very often a matter of opinion, and in this case the opinion of four successive Governments, and of eight Law Officers and four Lord Chancellors and of (he vast majority of members of Parliament, is that it is right to validate these war charges. The position has been made quite clear by the noble Viscount who spoke first. These war charge payments were voluntarily incurred; indeed, many of the licences for which the payments were made were greatly clamoured for because of the great advantages secured in return. Moreover, as the noble Viscount pointed out, at the time the charges were made they were thought to be legal, and all Parliament is now asked to do is to legalise something which was then understood to be legal, and which unquestionably would have been legalised at the time if it were deemed at all necessary.

I think that is the real crux of the matter, and is the reply at any rate to the first part of the noble Lord's speech. This is not a Bill which is doing an illegal thing. It is a late or overdue legalisation of acts which were quite good and proper in themselves, and which, when they were done, were not deemed to require special legal sanction. I will not say anything more, except this, that I could wish that every Bill which came before this House was as just as I hold this one to be.


Perhaps, my Lords, I may intervene for a few moments, as I was responsible in the last Parliament for the rejection of the Bill in this House. I must question Lord Peel's statement that this is a different Bill. I refer to a statement by his own colleague in another place when introducing this Bill. The President of the Board of Trade said this:— The Bill in its present form is in the form to which the last House of Commons agreed after a very long debate in Committee …. Two points particularly were raised. One Was that in a measure of this kind each charge which it sought to legalise should be clearly and plainly stated in the Schedule. That is done, as the House will see, in the present Bill. That quotation shows that in the opinion of the President of the Board of Trade it is exactly the same Bill as was rejected in the last Parliament. Therefore, I cannot understand how the noble Viscount can say that this is a different Bill.

I was very much interested in what Lord Banbury said as regards the. desirability of your sending this Bill back to the House of Commons in order that this question may be considered, so that we may have a decision as to the attitude of Mr. Speaker—wiry, on one occasion, he should give his Certificate for it as a Money Bill and should not have done so on the other occasion. We should also then know whether Mr. Speaker has carried out the provisions of the Parliament Act, which were put in to safeguard occasions like the present, and to prevent Bills being bandied about between one House and the other. The Parliament Act requires that Mr. Speaker, before giving his Certificate, shall consult, if practicable, two members to be appointed from the Chairman's Panel at the beginning of each Session by the Committee of Selection. I shall be interested to know whether those two assessors are appointed every Session, and if Mr. Speaker does address himself to those assessors. Whatever may be our views with regard to the matter it is very important indeed that the Parliament Act should be carried out very strictly.


My Lords, I am rather glad, in one way, that we have had an opportunity of considering this Bill again, because you will perhaps remember that I was one of those who voted in the minority last year, and was of opinion that the decision of the majority was ill-advised. I held that opinion then, and of course my noble friend Lord Banbury, who is a model of consistency himself, will expect me to hold the same opinion now I was very sorry that the decision to reject the Bill was reached. My noble friend says that it was come to by a majority, and he does not feel at all daunted by the fact that the majority was a small majority, and was a majority in a very small House. Really I think that is a material consideration. I do think that those who are in favour of the Bill are glad that we have a larger attendance of members here to-day to whom we can appeal than we had on the last occasion. Moreover, the issue was, as Lord Strachie will remember, a little confused on the last occasion by the intervention of the milk issue.

He was the author of the introduction of the milk issue, and he was of opinion, which he expressed very strongly, that by the action of the then Government great benefit was going to accrue to the middle men which ought to go to the farmers. He protested against what he considered to be the ill-usage of the farmer. That is a matter which always makes a strong appeal to your Lordships, and I dare say it was responsible for several votes in the Majority Lobby—quite enough to make all the difference between a majority and a minority as the House was then constituted.


Milk was out of it last year.


Yes, but milk formed a very important issue in the debate last year. It is, however, really not material to the point. The point is simply whether in the case of these specific matters mentioned in the Schedule there should or should not be a validating of the charges which the then Government of the country imposed. Those charges do not include the milk charges. I am not going to dwell upon the amount, although the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, drew attention to the largo sum involved. If the payments were unjust I should not ask you to pass this Bill by reason of the amount involved. If the money was really due to these gentlemen, and these charges ought not, to be validated, then we ought not to shrink from it merely on account of the amount; but I hold that these charges were properly charged in equity, although they turned out to be illegal.

I must deal with one other consideration, which has been introduced in the debate You have been reminded that the Bill reaches you with one different aspect this year from the Bill of last year, and that is that it has been fortified by the Certificate of Mr. Speaker. I confess very much regret that it has the Certificate of Mr. Speaker. I should have liked to fight this issue upon its merits in your Lordships' House. I feel a strong confidence that, upon the merits alone, now that your Lordships have real time to consider it, and in such a House as I see before me at this moment, there would be no doubt whatever as to the result, altogether apart from any question of whether this be a Finance Bill or not.

I am quite sure that my noble friend Lord Banbury will not expect me to defend the Parliament Act. There are members now in your Lordships' House who might be willing to defend that Act, but they are very few. We all of us consider that, in the form in which that Act passed, your Lordships had a great grievance, and I will not say anything different from that. But undoubtedly that is the law, and in the administration of that law Mr. Speaker has given his Certificate. Lord Banbury, who has comparatively recently left the House of Commons, evidently thinks that Mr. Speaker was wrong. I certainly should not venture to offer any opinion; it would be entirely outside the province of a member of the Government to say anything of that kind. I do not know upon what grounds Mr. Speaker came to his conclusions. There is a difference in the drafting of this Bill, compared with the Bill of last year. My noble friend admitted that. Paragraph (c) of Clause I, for instance, which existed in last year's Bill, has disappeared from this year's Bill. But these matters are very technical, and, as I say, I certainly have no notion upon what reasons Mr. Speaker proceeds. That is a matter which he understands, and which no noble Lord is supposed to be able to understand.

My noble friend says: "Then let us send it back to the House of Commons, and find out what their reason is." But you will not find out their reason by sending it back to the House of Commons. They are not bound to give a reason. I venture to say that they will not give a reason. Why should they? That is not in the Parliament Act. What will happen, of course, is that they will put into force, as they are entitled to do under the Statute, the provision which exists, and the Bill will be passed over your Lordships' heads. Even if I agreed with my noble friend on the merits, which I do not, I certainly would not advise your Lordships to take that singularly undignified course, when you know that, by the law of the land, the Speaker is entitled, upon considerations which seem to him good, to issue his Certificate. That would be a course very lacking in dignity on the part of your Lordships, who are bound, as no other Assembly in the world is bound, to act according to the strict letter of the law.


Under the Parliament Act the House of Commons has the power not to exercise its right. The words are "unless the House otherwise determines."


I do not doubt, and my noble friend does not doubt, that such a course would not be taken. The House of Commons would certainly pass the Bill, as they are entitled to do, without reference any further to your Lordships. Now let me leave these technical considerations, and say a word or two upon the merits. When I hear my noble friend quoting his old—I was almost going to say musty— constitutional precedents, and when I remember that he is applying them, not to the ordinary times of peace, but to the tremendous convulsions of the European War, and what took place then, I confers I am astonished. It is quite evident that in equity none of the precedents apply. During the war we did every day things that were in the highest degree unconstitutional. All of us did them. We were proud of doing them; we were proud of scrapping the ordinary rules of the Constitution in order that the country might exercise its fullest strength in the war. Little mistakes were made. I do not find fault with the Government of that day because they made mistakes. When you consider the pressure under which those decisions were made, although I was in opposition at the time, I should not criticise them. These traders were asked to pay a small fee, and they were quite willing to pay the fee in the great majority of cases. It was a bargain between the two; they said: "If you give us these advantages we will pay the fee." Well, they had the advantages, and now my noble friend says they do not want to pay the fee. Could there be anything more monstrously unfair than such a proceeding? That is what he asks your Lordships to countersign.

There used to be a word very common in these discussions, a word which I myself very seldom use, but a word which describes some of the gentlemen who made money on these occasions: they were called "profiteers." Now why should we in your Lordships' House take the strong course of rejecting this Bill in order to increase the profits of certain profiteers? That is what my noble friend really asks you to do. It will not help the workers, it will not help anybody who deserves our compassion: but if my noble friend is successful he will help a certain number of men who made an exceedingly good bargain during the war. I think that would be a most profound mistake. I earnestly hope that your Lordships will not countenance the suggestion of my noble friend. Even if Mr. Speaker had not intervened—and I confess I sincerely wish he had not intervened—I should still say, and say very emphatically, that I hope your Lordships will allow us to pass this Bill.

On Question, Amendment negatived: Bill read 2a; Committee negatived.