§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR DOMINION AFFAIRS (THE EARL OF CLARENDON)
My Lords, as your Lordships are probably aware, the effect of this Bill is to make it unnecessary for any Minister on appointment to seek re-election as a member of the House of Commons, as he has to do in certain cases under the present system. In other words, this Bill seeks to amend the Re-election of Ministers Act, 1919, which in its turn amended in a certain degree the Statute of the Reign of Queen Anne, dating from the year 1707. This Bill was introduced in the House of Commons and obtained a Second Reading as a Private Member's Bill. It received on that occasion a majority in its favour of two to one. Subsequently, on the Third Reading, it was adopted by the Government, and obtained a majority in its favour of very nearly two and a half to one. The only Amendment that was made during the passage of the Bill through the House of Commons was the addition of a schedule, the effect of which was to remove certain Bills which will be rendered dead as the result of the passage of this Bill into law. During the passage of this Bill through the House of Commons the Labour Party objected to it, but the Liberal Party, through the medium of their spokesman, Sir John Simon, accepted the principle of the Bill, but argued that its operation should be delayed, that it should not function during the lifetime of the present Government, but should come into operation only after the next General Election.
I suppose it is true to say that all the arguments both for and against the Bill have already been explored in another place, and, in the few remarks that I have to make to your Lordships this afternoon, I shall confine myself entirely to the main arguments adduced in its favour. One of the advantages that we claim for this Bill is that the provision of the Statute of Queen Anne, as amended by subsequent legislation, is no longer needed. I do not suppose that 502 any of your Lordships will argue that there is in these modern days any danger of the Crown exercising undue influence upon any of its paid servants in the House of Commons. That danger has long since ceased to exist. I think too it can be claimed for this Bill that the Prime Minister who may be in power at any time is free altogether from any embarrassment or inconvenience in connection with the choice of a Minister to fill any given post. He is no longer obliged to consider whether the holder of any given seat holds a safe seat or not. He has a very wider choice inasmuch as he is able to select from the ranks of his Party any man whom he thinks is best qualified to fill any particular post.
The present system, I think it is true to say, is full of anomalies. Let me give your Lordships one or two instances. The present system, for instance, does not apply to the following Ministers—the Financial Secretary of the War Office, any of the Parliamentary Secretaries, or the Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State. It does, on the other hand, apply to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, even to those who are not in receipt of a salary, and of course it equally applies to any member of the House, of Commons whom it is desired to promote. I am informed also that it becomes a matter of very great difficulty—I believe I shall be supported by legal authority in the House when I make this statement—to decide as to whether it is necessary for the holder of any given office to seek re-election at the hands of his constituents. The sufferers under the present system are not so much Cabinet Ministers as the rising members of the Party in power whom the Prime Minister of the time may desire to promote. I think it is generally conceded that they do suffer under the present system great inconvenience, and in some cases, indeed, great financial hardship.
But these inconveniences are not entirely confined to financial hardships, affecting as they do the member himself. The present system has, perhaps, what might be considered a still worse effect, inasmuch as it takes away from the performance of his new duties a man who has been made a Minister. He is obliged to go down to his 503 constituency and fight what may be a hotly contested by-election, and by so doing it can, I think, be claimed that through no fault of his own he is interfering with the efficient working of the Executive, inasmuch as he is taken away from his office at a time when he should be familiarising himself not only with his new duties but also with the officials with whom he has got to work in the future.
Some criticism was directed against the Bill in the House, of Commons on the ground that it deprived the electorate of their indirect control over the appointment of the members of the Executive Government in this country, and that it was unwise to interfere with and disturb the existing constitutional usage. My right hon. friend the Home Secretary dealt with this argument very effectively, I think, when he spoke on the Third Reading of the Bill in another place. He pointed out that opportunities already exist, not only in so far as the direct control of the constituencies is concerned over appointments to the Executive, but also for criticism of the action and policy of the Government of the day by means of by-elections. Statistics show that in the early days of a Government by-elections occur as frequently as once a month, and that as the Government becomes a little more advanced in age those by-elections increase from twelve to eighteen per year, so that constituencies have opportunities once every three weeks in the later stages of a Government's life for criticising the policy of the Government of the day. Therefore, we on this side of the House contend that there is no necessity for compelling the holders of office to seek re-election at the hands of their constituents when they are promoted.
The main opposition, I think I am correct in stating, in the House of Commons, was directed to this point, that such a great constitutional change should not become operative immediately. Surely the answer to that is a very simple one. If the principle is right—and it seems to me that the Divisions which I have referred to this afternoon at any rate prove that the majority of the members of the House of Commons agree with the principle of the Bill—surely then it is not unreasonable that the present Administration 504 should reap the undoubted advantages that will accrue as a result of the passing of this Bill into law. I may say, in this connection, that there is a precedent for this, inasmuch as the Act of 1919, which amended the Statute of Anne of 1707, became operative during the life of the Government which introduced it. I have little more to say, except to make this further observation. Your Lordships probably will remember that the present Prime Minister, speaking on the Second Reading in the House of Commons, stated that on consideration of the balance of the advantages with the disadvantages of the Bill, he and his colleagues considered that the balance lay in favour of the Bill, which removes, as your Lordships are aware, certain anomalies and inconveniences which have their origin in a very old Statute passed at a time when the system of Government which then prevailed was very different from that which obtains to-day. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a, second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Clarendon.)
§ LORD STRACHIE had given Notice to move as an Amendment, That the Bill be read 2a this day six months. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I move the rejection of this Bill on the ground that it has never been properly considered by the country. Although the noble Earl said that it was carried by a majority of two to one on the Second Reading and two and a half to one on the Third Reading in the House of Commons, he did not tell your Lordships what are the real facts of the case. The real facts of the case are that it was a very small House indeed; that on the Second Reading there were only 143 members prepared to support it while 74 were against it, making a majority of 69. That means that about 400 members thought the Bill was worthless and would not take the trouble to come down and vote for it. On the Third Reading the same thing happened. At that time, after the Government Whips had been put on, they actually got 183 members to vote for it as against 88, a majority of 95. There, again, an enormous number of members of the House of Commons, even on the Third Reading with the Government Whips put on, refused to come down and support it. I am not surprised considering that during 505 the debate on the Report Stage and on Third Reading very strong objection was taken by some of the oldest and most respected members of the Conservative Party to the Bill.
§ When the noble Earl says that the Government supported it after the Second Reading, he will find that the Government Whips were not put on during the Report Stage but only during the last moments. I am not surprised that the Whips were put on when I notice who was in charge of the Government business that day. I notice that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was in charge, and we all know that on one occasion when he went down to seek re-election at Manchester he was heavily defeated by the Conservative Party, and it had a very great effect all over the country at that time. I believe the Conservative Party believe more in the Constitution than the Conservative Government do. The noble Earl also said that Sir John Simon supported the Bill. He supported it only on the undertaking that it should apply to future Parliaments and not to the present Parliament, that it should not be a Ministerial Relief Bill at the present moment.
Take what has happened in the past. I shall not go back to the time of Queen Anne, but it is interesting to note that when such a Bill came before the House of Commons in 1869 there was practically no Division upon it and Sir William Harcourt opposed it for several reasons. Sir William Harcourt was a very great constitutional lawyer and he quoted the words of Hallam, words which are just as true to-day:—
These restrictions ought to be vigorously and jealously maintained"—
that is to say, all restrictions as regards the power of the Crown or the Executive. I admit that so far as the Crown is concerned at the present moment there are no dangers, but there are dangers as regards the Executive. What happened during the War? Undoubtedly, during the War the Act was suspended and it was very necessary that during the War there should be no re-election of Ministers, but in 1919 a different state of things arose. A Bill was brought in, and passed, providing for nine months exemption only. That was very reasonable. After men had been down to face their
constituents there ought to be a close time and they ought not to have to appeal at once to their constituents for re-election. Even when that Act was passed in 1919 there was a great deal of doubt in the Conservative Party as to whether it was right. Mr. Bonar Law said:—
It is a protection of the electorate against the House of Commons.
and he went on to say:
I quite admit that it has not been without its uses.
He went on to say that it might affect a new Government in the same Parliament. We know that is exactly what happened in a recent Parliament. We had a Conservative Party returned, but, because they had not a majority, they went out and a Labour Government was appointed. It think it is very useful in these circumstances that when these men have not gone to the country as Ministers they should go to the country to see if the country approves of them as Ministers. It may happen again in the next Parliament. It is quite possible that the present Government will not have a majority in the new Parliament. Under this Bill, if they were defeated on the Address and a new Government came into office, the new Government would not have to seek re-election. That is very undesirable.
Mr. Bonar Law also said:—
I think it is an advantage that there should be, by means of these elections, an opportunity of letting the country give its vote.
That was not only the view of Mr. Bonar Law, who, to the sorrow of all of us, has passed away, with his great services to the country. Members of the present Government spoke strongly against this Bill. Lord Wolmer, the present Assistant Postmaster-General, said:—
That principle has not been maintained in our history for nothing. It is a great bulwark against jobbery.
I do not suppose he has changed his views. Speaking also in 1919, Lord Winterton, who is now Under-Secretary of State for India, said:
In considering this Bill there is another point to be borne in mind. A great change in the Constitution is proposed by this Bill.
He only supported the Bill after it was limited to nine months. I notice that the present Secretary of State for India, speaking in this House in 1919, referred
to the compromise that had been reached to limit the Bill to a period of nine months after a General Election. He said that it was a reasonable compromise, but that to complete exemption private members offered reasonable and legitimate objection. Another and more important member of the present Government, the President of the Board of Trade, Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister, speaking in the debate of 1919, said:
Apart from the question of the rules of procedure, this old convention is of very great interest to the public.…The obligation upon a Minister to go to the country and seek re-election has been a recognised opportunity of the country to express its opinion after a time upon the conduct of the Government in the application of its principles.
I was glad to note that he was conspicuous by his absence in the Division on the Third Reading of this Bill.
§ May I remind your Lordships that it has constantly been the boast and declaration of prominent members of this House that the Constitution of this country ought not to be changed unless there has been some direct appeal to the people of this country and that it is the business of this House to see that no legislation is passed such as this legislation, which has been passed by a House of Commons with not a third of its members voting? As to the noble Earl's suggestion that the Act of Queen Anne is in disuse, one of its objects is to curb the Executive and that is what he and his friends are very anxious should not be done. They want a free run, without by-elections. They do not want by-elections to happen as in the case of Dudley, when the policy of the country was changed and the then President of the Board of Agriculture was turned out. I was very sorry about the result of that election, but it did change the policy of the Government of the country at that time; the Government allowed the admission of Canadian store cattle because the Ministry was turned out. That certainly shows that when a Minister seeking re-election fails to keep his seat it has an effect on the Government of the day.
§ The noble Earl who moved the Second Reading of the Bill was not, I think, a member of the House of Commons, but those of your Lordships who have been members of that House will know that a 508 private member gives a great many pledges to his constituents and is expected to carry them out, but if he becomes a Minister of the Crown he is unable to carry out any of those pledges if they are contrary to the policy of the Government. He has to support the Government, right or wrong, or else resign. That seems to me a very strong argument that the constituency has a right to say whether it is prepared to have as its member a man who is obliged to put the interests of the constituency behind those of the interests of the Government of the day.
§ The noble Earl said that at these by-elections Ministers had to go down to the country, and it was very inconvenient for them, and he pointed out that there were by-elections if the vacancy was occasioned by death. But that is a very different matter, and it was pointed out in the House of Commons that when a candidate goes down two or three years after the General Election to seek election in the place of somebody whose seat is vacated owing to death, such a candidate always says that he is opposed to all that part of the Government policy which is unpopular, so that those elections are no test whether the country approve or disapprove of the Government. But a Minister cannot do that; he is obliged to say that all the acts of the Government are perfect, otherwise he could not be a member of the Government.
§ I cannot help recalling that we have often been told that we have to be very careful in this House as regards any alteration of the Constitution. One of the arguments used in this House is that the Constitution may be threatened by a certain Party in the House of Commons which does not occupy the Treasury Bench at this moment and that in such a case this House would stand between the House of Commons and the country. That has been the constant declaration in this House; that it stands not between the people and their legitimate wishes, but against the House of Commons forcing on the country laws about which it has never been consulted. If this House accepts this great constitutional change, brought in as a Ministers' Relief Bill and passed by a small majority in the House of Commons against the protests of some of the most influential members of the Conservative Party, I think it will be very difficult and illogical in other circum- 509 stances to resist measures altering the Constitution when the electorate has not been consulted upon them at a General Election. For these reasons I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time on this day six months.
Leave out ("now") and insert at the end of the Motion ("this day six months").—(Lord Strachie.)
§ VISCOUNT HALDANE
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord who has just spoken for having risen before he moved his Amendment. I had not noticed his Amendment on the Paper. When I did notice it I at once gave way. But, having listened to the speech of the noble Lord in support of the Amendment, I confess that it has not impressed me. His speech consisted of a series of statistical and quotational reminiscences, of statements of persons of varying eminence about the substance of this Bill. Everybody will approach this Bill from his own point of view, but, speaking for myself, I do not think that you can judge it on any mere collection of statements which other people have made upon the subject at periods different from our own. Undoubtedly the Bill makes a very considerable constitutional change. I do not disclaim the title which the noble Lord gave to it of a Ministers' Relief Bill, but, on the other hand, I think the noble Earl opposite made out, on balance, a good case for the measure.
What was the origin of the practice to remove which this Bill has been introduced? To answer that question you must go back to a stage in our constitutional history very different from any stage that we have to-day. Our Constitution is an unwritten one. It is constantly adapting itself and it has been the battle-ground on which Parliament and the Sovereign have fought out various very serious contests. In the days of Queen Anne and even more, I think, in the days of the first three King Georges, there was a very great state of tension between the Crown and those who believed in popular Government. The practice of the Crown was not only to interfere in elections to a very large extent, although indirectly, but also to interfere with the choice by the Prime Minister of the Ministers whom he required. In fact, it was not 510 really until after Walpole's time that we got anything like a Prime Minister with the powers which later Prime Ministers, such as the younger Pitt, possessed, and it was not possible for the Prime Minister to select his Ministers with any degree of freedom. The people were very jealous of the power and influence of Ministers, and of the power of the Crown in foisting on them, as they thought, Ministers of the Crown, and consequently they laid great stress or the safeguard which was contained in the Statute of Queen Anne.
But presently that began to pass away, and to-day it has wholly passed away, and there is not the least reason for keeping up this means of checking the freedom of the Prime Minister. It sometimes influences him in appointing persons who may not be the best for the posts for which he designs them, and who are put in because they possess safe seats. That is not a good thing. The Prime Minister ought to be as free as we can make him in the choice of his Ministers and to-day there is not the least reason to apprehend the interference of the Crown, or anybody else, with his choice. He chooses himself, and this, if you like, is a Bill to give him relief. On balance I am wholly in favour of this Bill. The circumstances out of which it arose, the stage of our unwritten Constitution in its growth to which it belonged, has wholly passed, and to-day we are dealing with a Constitution which is, for all practical purposes, free so far as concerns this question.
Why should we continue this Act on the Statute Book? Why should Ministers be sent back to their constituents? Even from the point of view of the public service it is not a good thing. It takes a man away from his work, and, more than that, it has very embarrassing effects. We do not want Ministers elected merely for the moment; we want them to have a certain degree of permanence. You do not want everything set up, as it were, to auction again, immediately after it has been decided at a General Election. Even with the nine months which would intervene, it is an unsatisfactory and often unfortunate provision which compels a Minister to go and seek re-election in circumstances which very often have nothing to do with his particular office. I think, therefore, that we have to approach the decision on this question, so far as this House is con- 511 cerned, from a large point of view. No doubt the Bill has had a curious history, originating as it did as a Private Member's Bill and having only a little lukewarm support afforded it by the Government. But in the end the Government did support it, I think rightly, and I am glad. I hope your Lordships will give a Second Reading to a Bill which destroys nothing that is of the slightest vital import and which has no bearing on the practical questions with which we have to deal to-day.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
My Lords, there is an old saying in the House of Commons that when the two Front Benches agree you should beware. So far as I can understand, not only do the two Front Benches agree but the noble Viscount who has just spoken has thrown over his Party and is now going to vote against their principle in this Bill. I am not myself sorry that the noble Viscount appears on more than one occasion to have been at daggers drawn with his Party. I hope it is a sign of coming repentence. Two reasons were given by my noble friend Lord Clarendon in favour of the Bill. The first reason was that the present system fetters the choice of Ministers and the second was that a Minister who has to go to his constituency has to spend there time which he would otherwise devote to studying the work of his new Department. I think I may dismiss the latter argument because the time that the new Minister would have to spend in his constituency would be something like three weeks. I do not think I need deal with that.
Coming to the other point, which undoubtedly has something in it—namely, that the choice of a Minister is limited—you must remember this. Every capable back bench member has not got a weak seat; in all probability the more capable the member the better his seat; and you must also remember that a constituency as a rule is very much flattered if its representative is chosen as a fit and proper person to enter the Government. Presuming that a private member is chosen and is defeated, does the country lose by that? Has the country lost by that? If it did, I should certainly be in favour of the Bill, but during my more than thirty years experience in the House of Commons I certainly know of no instance where the country did lose. 512 Let me give your Lordships an instance which occurred, I think, in 1904. Mr. Gerald Loder was made a Whip. A better appointment never could have been made. He was an ideal member for a Whip. He went to his constituency and was defeated. What happened? Lord Edmund Talbot, whom you all know and who would not have taken office if it had not been for this particular incident, took the place that had been offered to Mr. Gerald Loder. Does anybody say the country suffered by that? I maintain that the country gained by it, though I admit Mr. Gerald Loder was an excellent member. Therefore, the idea that the country loses by the present practice is, I venture to say, absurd.
I assure your Lordships that there are not in the House of Commons and never have been a certain number of members who are so pre-eminently above the other members that they are fitted to take a place which other members are not fitted for. Believe me, the majority of members of the House of Commons are pretty much the same and it does not make very much difference which you choose, whether it be Mr. Jones or Mr. Smith. One would probably do as well as the other and, therefore, I think one must dismiss the argument that this Bill should be passed because it limits the choice. This proviso undoubtedly does ease the position of Ministers, for it enables them to appoint their friends who might possibly have unsafe seats and it enables members of the House of Commons to avoid, what is a very disagreeable experience in these days, going to their constituencies and having to spend a certain amount of money. But is that a reason why we should alter our whole constitutional habit and pass this Bill? From the point of view of the country I maintain that the present practice is good. I am not a democrat, I never have been, but I believe in Government by the people in a modified degree. What are you going to do if you pass this Bill? You are going to deprive the country of the power of veto that it possesses at the present moment, if it does not like either a new Minister or the policy of the Government.
Why are you going to do this? You are going to do this on the initiative of a private member—a new member. I do 513 not remember his name and I suppose he was not in the House of Commons with me. My noble friend says his name is Clayton, but I do not remember a Mr. Clayton in the House of Commons, therefore he probably is a quite new member without any knowledge of the Rules of the House or any experience of the value of the old Rules. Let me remind your Lordships of what occurred in 1919. At that time a very large number of new members came to the House and they immediately wished to alter all the Rules. I was very strongly opposed to that, having had so many years' experience of the goodness and value of those Rules. One of the things the new members wished to do was to take the Committee of Supply and put it upstairs. I implored Mr. Bonar Law not to support that, but he insisted upon doing it. What happened? Within a very short time it was found to be so impossible that the Rule was altered and the Committee of Supply was taken, as it had been for hundreds of years, on the floor of the House. Another thing that new members are always wishing to do is this. They always wish to do something that will make things easy for them and their Party at the moment. They forget altogether that there may be a change and that they may by and by be in Opposition.
I am not at all sure that the noble Viscount, who has had a very long experience of the House of Commons, has not found out that his friends in another place were wrong and that he is right, in view of the fact that if we are cursed with a Labour Government in a few years this will play into the hands of that Labour Government. I expect that is a reason why the noble Viscount has turned round, thrown over his Party in another place, and is prepared to support this Bill. I am not at all sure that it is quite the usual thing for a Government on the Third Reading of a Bill that has been opposed—a Bill brought in by a private member which has been divided against on the Second Reading—to put the Whips on. It certainly never was so in my days, but circumstances change. Let me point out that there were a very considerable number of the most influential Labour members of the House of Commons who voted against the Bill.
As the noble Lord, Lord Strachie, said, the Bill was taken on a Friday afternoon, 514 when there are generally very few people in the House of Commons. I am not quite certain of the number, but I do not think that out of the 615 members there were more than about 260 in the House at any time. Out of the 86—or whatever the number was, some number like that—who voted against the Second and Third Readings the majority were the flower of the private members of the Conservative Party, members who knew what they were about, who had been many years in the House of Commons and therefore were capable of giving an opinion on this subject. I am sorry to have taken up the time of your Lordships' House for so long, but I feel very deeply on this matter, having seen during my thirty years in the House of Commons the many mistakes which have arisen from altering without due consideration the old Rules and practice of the House.
§ LORD WITTENHAM
My Lords, the noble Lord who has just sat down and I sat for many years together in another place. I have not always seen eye to eye with him, but I am delighted to think that on the present occasion my own opinion, so far as the debate has gone, coincides with the conclusion to which he has come. I do not like the way in which this matter was initiated in another place. It was a Private Member's Bill. It was only at a late stage, as has been pointed out, that the Government took it up at all. Surely in a matter of this importance—because it is of great constitutional importance, as the noble and learned Viscount opposite has pointed out—the Government ought to have made up their mind, if they were going to touch it at all, to bring it in as a Government Bill and pass it through as a Government Bill. It rather leads one to wonder whether, somehow or somewhere, expediency did not come in. Expediency counts for a great deal in politics, at least so far as I have been able to observe politics for the last twenty-five years in one House or the other.
Why was it taken up and pressed through under the Party Whips when in all the earlier stages it had gone through merely as a Private Member's Bill? I wish the Government had left it alone Have they not got enough on hand—I should have thought so—without putting their fingers into this, perhaps, very dis- 515 agreeable matter in the future because, as my noble friend pointed out just now, politics come and politics go and politicians come and politicians go. The present Government seems firmly seated now—is firmly seated—but in another three years we shall be thinking about another Election. I suppose if there is anything certain in the uncertain political world it is that great swing of the pendulum. Then, perhaps, a very extreme Government may be returned not only to office but to power. Ought we not to hold on to every bit of the brake that we have still got?—because this is a political brake.
I agreed with the enlargement of the old rule in 1919. I agreed that immediately after a. General Election, when the country had expressed its opinion and clearly expressed its opinion, it was not advisable that you should start a number of elections on Ministers taking this post or that post or the other post. Therefore, nine months close time was imposed by that Act, and I think that was fair and just, although, as my noble friend Lord Strachie pointed out a little while ago, there was great opposition even to that enlargement. It was odd to me that the noble Lord should have restricted himself to quoting Conservative orators. I should have thought he would have been able to dig up a Liberal member on such a matter as that. But not one did he quote, although I thought, and think, there was great force in the sum total of the opinion that he expressed, supported in the way he did support it by quoting to us what did happen in 1919.
I am a Party man. I have always been a Party man. Very rarely have I voted in another place where I was for so many years, certainly never here that I can remember, against my Party. If this Bill had been brought in by the Government I should have voted with them, but I consider this Bill is half and half and that lets out my conscience. It was a private measure in the first instance and only became a Government measure late in the day, which shows that the Government really had no convictions on the matter. If they had not, why am I not at liberty to follow my own free will? I wait to hear, as we shall hear in a few minutes, probably from our revered and respected Leader in this House, what 516 reasons there were and are for having turned this into a Government measure, but, subject to that, if the noble Marquess does not satisfy me I shall consider I have not been disloyal to my Party, that I am acting only according to what I feel to be right, in saying in the words of a Prime Minister of the past—was it Lord Melbourne or was it Lord Palmerston?—"Why not let it alone?"
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
My Lords, although I am opposed to this Bill, the fact that for thirty odd years I have been either in this House or another with Lord Strachie and never had the honour of being in the same Lobby with him on any single occasion makes me a little diffident as to voting with him on this occasion. Certainly the arguments that have been used against the Bill would not have convinced me that the Bill was wrong, but there is a point of view which occurs to me which may or may not be a good reason for making me wish that this Bill had not been brought forward. This is not a purely domestic affair for the House of Commons. It must be looked upon from the point of view as to how it will affect your Lordships' House. To my mind it may affect it to the very great detriment of the limited powers that are left to your Lordships. At the present moment this House cannot reject a Bill. It can only postpone it in the hope that between the date of the postponement and its coming up a second time, after which it becomes law, there shall be such an expression of opinion in the country as will show that this House and not the authors of the Bill really represent the voters of this country. Therefore, you ought to be very careful where you are in any way diminishing the methods that you have of ascertaining the will of the people.
You cannot get, and you never will get, the will of the people in newspaper articles, or in meetings, or in speeches. You can get it only by the votes that are put in the ballot boxes. I do not say that this is an infallible rule, but there is no doubt that if you look at the history even of those Governments that have been in power during my own Parliamentary lifetime, you will see that by-elections have been the straws which show which way the wind blows. Accordingly, although I quite admit all 517 the inconveniences to a Prime Minister that follow, and agree that there are many reasons for the passing of this Bill, I do feel that if it is passed it will deprive your Lordships of one of the best ways, if not the only way, by which this House can ascertain, as I have said, whether the attitude that it has taken up on a Bill meets with the approval of the country generally.
The limitation in the Act of 1919, by which, for nine months after an Election, a Minister does not require to seek re-election, at all events gave the Prime Minister the power of appointing his Government at the outset without what I agree to be the annoyances of by-elections. But surely after nine months, when his policy is declared, the country should have an opportunity of expressing its views on that policy on every possible occasion, and the people who will most profit by such an expression are probably the members of your Lordships' House. As I have said, you will know better through a by-election whether or not the views you may have adopted on a particular subject are those held by the electorate. That is my reason for the attitude that I have adopted. I do not know if it has up to now been put forward, and I put it forward in all humility as the one reason why I may vote against this Bill. I hope that the Government will allow me to say in conclusion that, if I do so, the vote which I give against the Bill is not to be taken in any way as showing a diminution on my part of the confidence that I have in them.
§ LORD BUCKMASTER
My Lords, it may reconcile the noble Earl to voting against the Government if I express my intention of voting with them. I do so because it seems to me that many of the arguments that have been directed against this Bill do not go to its fundamental principles at all. The fact that this Bill was introduced by a private member, that it was subsequently adopted by the Government, that they coerced opinion by putting on their Whips—none of these things affect my judgment as to whether or not this Bill is good; and that, it appears to me, is the only question upon which the opinion of this House ought to be based.
I think that everyone knows the origin of the disability which now exists with 518 regard to the appointment of Ministers of the Crown. It was, I believe, due to the fact that at the end of the eighteenth century corruption had become so common, and sinecure offices were so frequently used for corrupt purposes, that it was intended to give the people, who at that time had very little control over the abuses against which they were constantly declaiming, the opportunity of securing that the exercise of this power should be subject at any rate to some revision. One thing at least we can say, and that is that this occasion has gone by. I do not know that there is any reasonable probability that it is going to return. I am not speaking as a professed optimist about the future of affairs in this country; I am by no means certain that during the last few years and since the War they have shown any sign of improvement. But, however much they may slip back, I do not believe that the country will permit the restoration of the conditions which, as I read history, were the genesis of the Act.
That being so, is there any other reason why this disability should be retained? The argument put forward by the noble Earl and echoed in more than one speech on the other side is that it provides an excellent opportunity to enable the country to express an opinion upon the policy of the Government, and this consideration evoked all the ardent democratic emotions of the noble Lord, Lord Banbury of Southam. I am not sure that he is not right, that it is not a good thing. But is it as good as the other thing—namely, that when a man is to be selected for office under the Crown the Prime Minister's hands should be wholly free? It may be that the noble Lord thinks that all people are very much alike, but none the less there is such a thing as selecting the right man and I cannot see why the Prime Minister's judgment should be biased and restrained in considering, not whether a certain man is the best man to appoint, but whether the man that he seeks to appoint has a safe seat and whether the Government must expect a jar if he appoints the man whom he desires to appoint. That is the real reason, and I think it is a, very strong reason indeed, why your Lordships should pass this Bill.
Having said that, I should like to add that I object most strongly to the Bill 519 being made applicable to the present Parliament. Unless I am much mistaken, similar Bills or Resolutions have been before your Lordships' House on previous occasions, but I do not think that on any one of those occasions it was ever suggested that the rule should operate in regard to the members of the existing House of Commons. The real reason for that is that, constitutionally speaking, the House ought not to vote privileges to itself. It does so, of course, and we know one or two outstanding instances of its doing so, but none the less it is not the sort of thing that it ought to do, and I can conceive no reason at all why this Government should not submit to the disadvantages to which other Governments have had to submit, why its members, on appointment to the Ministry, should not be called upon to face an election as their predecessors have done.
There are several reasons why it may be thought specially desirable to exclude the present Parliament from the operation of this Bill. Events have not been going too well with the Party to which I have the honour to belong, and it does happen that when difficulties arise in any Party people change their allegiance from one side of the House to the other. Sometimes they go to extremes on the left and sometimes they go to more moderate Parties on the right. Such migration does not under present conditions involve a man in facing his constituents and asking whether or not they approve of what he has done. That is unfortunate. But surely, if one of these migrants were made a Minister, it would be an admirable opportunity for his constituents to express their views upon his conduct, and I do feel that the conditions which exist at the present moment with regard to the Parties in the House of Commons are of such a character that this risk is not negligible and that it ought to be borne in mind. If the Government determine that they will do that which, I think I am right in saying, has been proposed in all other measures—if they will exclude the present Parliament from the operation of the Bill—I shall support it. If they are unable to give me that promise, I shall still vote for the Second Reading, but I shall certainly take an opportunity of moving in Committee than an Amendment to that effect be introduced.
§ VISCOUNT YOUNGER OF LECKIE
My Lords, I should like to put one argument before you in favour of this Bill which I do not think has so far been touched upon. The Bill has been called a Ministers' Relief Bill. Personally I should call it a House of Commons Relief Bill, and for this reason. Let us take the present position. We have a very strongly entrenched Government, I hope, with a large majority. Either through their faults of omission or commission their followers in the House of Commons might like to get rid of them. What does that involve. It involves, as things are at present constituted, probably the use of the Prime Minister's prerogative of going to the King and asking for a Dissolution of Parliament. The members of the House of Commons are tied in that respect, because they have got to face, perhaps, loss of seats and very large expenditure in going to the country if a General Election must be the result of putting the Government in a minority. Why should the Government, if that happened to them, be in a position to exercise that prerogative? Why should the Prime Minister be in a position to control the House of Commons vote, because of the unfortunate result that would occur to members if he asked for a Dissolution? There would be no difficulty whatever in forming a new Government out of the existing majority of the House of Commons, but there is little chance of that being done, because the whole of those members would immediately have to go to the country, and the result would be almost a miniature General Election. Therefore I would put that argument to the House, because I think it would relieve the House of Commons, if this Bill were passed, from a disability.
§ LORD PHILLIMORE
My Lords, most of what I proposed to say has been said by the noble Earl, Lord Derby, who put so forcibly his reasons for not agreeing with the Government on this occasion. I can put my argument in a single sentence. This measure ought not to pass until the Parliament Act has been reformed and altered. While the Parliament Act endures we are, I think, not quite reduced to single-chamber government, but perilously near to it, and among the many objections to single-chamber government is this, that members of that chamber 521 begin to forget they are there merely as representatives of the popular will and begin to think they are of importance in themselves. They give themselves salaries, they seek to prolong their period of office, and they are in danger of becoming a body of tyrants. That is probably the main objection which political thinkers have to urge against single-chamber government. While the present state of things lasts anything that reminds the representatives that, after all, they are but representatives, that they are there representing the people's will, and that they are not to ride roughshod over people because they cannot be turned out for six or seven years, is to the good. Anything which sends members back to their constituents, and enables the constituencies to pronounce upon the acts of their representatives, is something which we ought most zealously to stick to as long as the present state of things remains. The Government have told us, perhaps more than once, that they intend some day or other to amend the Parliament Act. They are very slow about doing so, and until they have done it I venture to say that we ought not to pass this measure.
§ LORD DARLING
My Lords, I hope I may be allowed to say a word or two on points which have been raised in this debate, more particularly by the noble Earl, Lord Derby, and by Lord Phillimore, who spoke last. It is said by Lord Phillimore, developing rather the argument addressed to us by Lord Derby, that anything which sends members of Parliament frequently back to their constituents is in itself a very good thing. Having had a seat in the House of Commons, and also having the honour of a seat in this House, where those who sit have no constituents, I beg entirely to differ. I cannot see that the members of the House which has no constituents compare at all badly with any single member of the House which has constituents, and if there were an argument against this Bill, and if I wanted to supply one to those who are opposed to it, I think I could supply them with as good a one as any I have yet heard. It is this, that while the rule established in the time of Queen Anne holds, the Prime Minister, looking round in order to select members to support him in his Government, and finding few in the House of Commons 522 with safe seats, may very well be induced to fill up his Government from the House of Lords. Would that satisfy my democratic friend, Lord Banbury?—unless, indeed, he were himself chosen. But then, of course, we should all forgive the Prime Minister. I do not know whether this ever occurred to Queen Anne as a reason for establishing this rule, but it may very well have done; so, and there were plenty of people about Queen Anne to whom it would have appeared a most admirable consummation in forming a Government.
I cannot say that I am at all affected by what seems so important to some of your Lordships—namely, that this was a Private Member's Bill at first. It does not seem to me to be a bad Bill for that reason alone. In the course of its passage through the House of Commons the Government came to the conclusion that it was so good that it should be their own. Then it is said that a dreadful thing happened—the Government Whips were put on. If the Whips were not put on legislation would not be nearly as good as it is. I am persuaded of that. How can one say that we should either vote for this Bill or against it simply because it was a Private Member's Bill which became a Government Bill, and that the Whips were put on? Lord Wittenham said that this fact, that it was both a Private Member's Bill and a Government Bill, let out his conscience. Thus for once he would decide that great question which has agitated the world, whether we should be governed by free will or predestination, and upon this occasion, and upon this occasion only, he is in favour of free will.
There was an argument used against the Bill by Lord Strachie. It was a very curious argument and it takes its place, I think, beside the main argument used by Lord Derby. He said there was an instance when the Prime Minister appointed a Minister of Agriculture, Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen I imagine, and Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen thereupon had to consult his constituents and his constituents rejected him. Thereupon, said the noble Lord, he was out and the Canadian stores came in. Did the noble Lord opposite welcome the Canadian stores? I feel sure he did not. They were the last things he wanted to 523 see down in Somerset. There is an instance where the very thing that he desires occurred and he strongly disapproves of the result. He would rather have had Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen with all his faults than the Canadian stores with all their virtues. The noble Lord who spoke from the Cross Benches said that a good result of this Statute of Queen Anne is that it supplies an indication to the Prime Minister of the way the wind is blowing and that a Prime Minister should watch the by-elections, and I gather that if he always watched the by-elections he would always decide rightly.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
I did not say that in the least. I said that between the time of the postponement of a Bill and the time it came up again this House, not the Prime Minister, would have the opportunity of seeing whether the views it took were in harmony with those of the electorate or not—and I did not speak from the Cross Benches.
§ LORD DARLING
That is my own fault for being so shortsighted, and I apologise to the noble Earl. But I thought it was the Prime Minister who was to judge. There was a Prime Minister, who, not so long ago that I cannot recollect it, met with a disaster owing to watching the by-elections and deciding on the results of by-elections. That was when Sir Edward Clarke won Southwark. Lord Beaconsfield, or Mr. Disraeli as he then was, was enormously impressed with that fact and decided, it I remember rightly, that the country would think to-morrow as Southwark thought that day. He went to the country and found that Southwark had no guidance whatever to give. Too much importance may be given to watching what a particular set of constituents do at any by-election. One knows what a by-election is like. I have fought one myself. All the power of all manner of organisations is turned on to a by-election. I should have thought that it gave a very slight indication in most cases of what is the opinion of the country when a General Election takes place. Then the ordinary politicians, who go about from constituency to constituency persuading the voters of what is only partially true, are occupied with their own affairs. I thank your Lordships for having allowed me to trespass so long 524 upon your time and I hope that this Bill will receive your Lordships' support.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I think that it was the noble Lord who moved the rejection who raised the question of the authority of your Lordships as regards any Bills of this character. I am sure the noble Lord himself and your Lordships will not think me for one moment likely to derogate from the authority of your Lordships in regard to this or any other kind of Bill which comes before you. There is no question whatever that it is your duty to consider this matter upon the merits and not abstain from using your judgment because, it is a matter which affects the electorate and the election of members to the House of Commons. Having said that, I think it is fair to say, on the other hand, that any Bill upon this subject and subjects analogous to it, which has received the decided approval of the House of Commons, comes to us with a special degree of authority. I notice that some of your Lordships who have passed a great deal of their lives in the House of Commons went into considerable detail as to the procedure in another place, whether a Bill was introduced by a private member or by the Government, whether it was dealt with on a Friday or on any other day. I should suggest to your Lordships not to go into details of that kind. This Bill comes to us with the full authority of the House of Commons. That is not conclusive by any means, but it does give it very great weight upon a subject of this description.
It does not only come to us upon the authority of the House of Commons, but upon the authority of a great number of distinguished men. The name has been used several times in the course of this debate of a man for whom I have a very great respect, who was my own leader, the late Mr. Bonar Law. It has been said that Mr. Bonar Law accepted an Amendment to a Bill similar to this, which limited the Bill so that it only operated for the nine months after a General Election. While it is true that that was so, I think it right to call your attention to the words in which Mr. Bonar Law accepted that Amendment. He made use of this remark:—Perhaps it is preferable to take two bites at a cherry. We will take the first bite now and the second later.525 I admit that the process of devouring this cherry has taken a considerable number of years, but we have arrived at the second bite. This is the opportunity, the opportunity to which my late right hon. friend looked forward, when the process he began was to be completed. The full policy of the Conservative Party, which he represented at that time, was the policy as it now is upon the Table of your Lordships. For the moment he accepted an instalment, but upon the express understanding that he was in favour of the policy of a second bite at the cherry so that the whole fruit might be consumed.
What is true of that distinguished Conservative Statesman is true, of course, of other leaders. There is the case, which has been quoted, of Sir John Simon in another place, who holds a position almost exactly repeated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Buckmaster, this evening. They are both in favour of the principle of this Bill. They do not attribute the least importance to an argument advanced from that Bench that the electorate ought to be consulted before the Bill is passed into law. I must say that is an absurd extension of the doctrine of consulting the electorate. If Parliament is not competent to deal with a matter of this kind it is not competent to deal with any matter at all, But though the noble Lord, Lord Strachie, thought that, neither Sir John Simon nor the noble and learned Lord agreed with him. They were absolutely prepared to deal with this matter in this Session, although it is quite true that they think that when the Bill comes to Committee it ought to be made to apply to a future Government and not to the present Government.
As to this question of the control of the electorate, I do not very often allow myself to deal with high constitutional doctrines, but I think it is not right to say that it is the business of the electorate to appoint the Government. That is very strange doctrine and, coming from so good a Conservative as the noble Lord, Lord Banbury, and people like him, it very much surprises me. The business of the electorate is to elect the House of Commons and it is the business of the House of Commons to indicate who should form the Government, or at any rate who should be the Prime Minister, and I think it is not right to allow that 526 doctrine to pass. We do not live under a Constitution under which the Government is appointed by the electorate. But undoubtedly there is considerable force in the argument which has been advanced that the opinion of the electorate is entitled to great weight in the policy of the Government, and that was put with tremendous force by my noble friend Lord Derby, who is not sitting on the Cross Benches but is occupying a position on this side of your Lordships' House. He said it was very important indeed to preserve the opportunity given by the re-election of Ministers for the country to pronounce an opinion on the policy of the Government.
As one listened to my noble friend one almost thought that the re-election of Ministers was the only opportunity which the elector has of voting at a by-election. I value my noble friend's opinion so very highly, I have acted with him for so many years, that I cannot help thinking that upon reflection he will see that he pressed that argument a great deal too far. The number of by-elections which are afforded by the re-elections of Ministers is insignificant compared with the great mass of by-elections which take place for Parliament. Of course, that is an opportunity for the electors to express their opinion as to whether their representative ought to support the Government. That is their function. It is exactly what the electors exist for, and they exercise that function upon the numerous occasions when a by-election takes place. But these re-elections of Ministers are comparatively rare, and I do not mean to say that there might not be force in my noble friend's argument, even in these rare cases, if there were not strong arguments on the other side; but, taken by itself, it is not nearly so important, and will not really bear the weight which my noble friend placed upon it.
The strongest argument is that we should have the best Government that the Prime Minister can provide. That is an overwhelming argument. What is the best way in which to provide a good Government? My noble friend thought that Jones was almost as good as Smith, and that all members sitting behind the Government (and I hardly like to contest the point with him) are quite as competent to form a Government as the people who sit on the Treasury Bench.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I am sure my noble friend will not think I have gone too far when I have interpreted with perfect accuracy what his real opinion was. It is rather difficult for me to contest that with due regard to modesty. But I think it is quite clear that there is an immense difference between members of Parliament, and that some make very good Ministers and some, as we have seen by experience, very bad ones. How does my noble friend account for it that some Ministers are so much better than others? It is quite clear that the difference between man and man is vital in a matter of this kind. Here is the Prime Minister, who finds one of his supporters eminently qualified by intellectual equipment, by experience, and perhaps by professional knowledge, for a place in the Government, but he only sits by a very small majority in his constituency. Observe that that has nothing to do with his merits, but, rather than run any risk, the Prime Minister says: "We must take a much worse man, who
§ sits for a safe seat, with a large majority."
§ You may say that the Prime Minister ought not to take that course. I am not sure that if my noble friend were Prime Minister he would not take precisely that course. But it is quite clear that in the interests of the country there should be no such temptation placed in the way of the Prime Minister. Every opportunity should be given to him to exercise his free and unfettered judgment, to select that man for the post who is best qualified for the post. We ought not to think of anything in this connection except the interests of the country, and I am quite certain that those interests dictate that the very best man that the Party can provide should be put into the office which happens to be vacant. These are the reasons why the Government have undertaken to support this Bill. I very much hope that your Lordships will pass it and repeal what has now become an anachronism.
§ On Question, Whether the word "now" shall stand part of the Motion?
§ Their Lordships divided:—Contents, 108; Not-Contents, 25.529
|Salisbury, M. (L. Privy Seal.)||Selborne, E.||Desborough, L.|
|Spencer, E.||Dinevor, L.|
|Stanhope, E.||Douglas, L. (E. Home.)|
|Sutherland, D.||Dunmore, L. (E. Dunmore.)|
|Wellington, D.||Cecil of Chelwood, V.||Elphinstone, L.|
|Chaplin, V.||Faringdon, L.|
|Bath, M.||Churchill, V.||Gage, L. (V. Gage.) [Teller.]|
|Camden, M.||Cobham, V.||Glenarthur, L.|
|Lansdowne, M.||Cross, V.||Hampton, L.|
|Zetland, M.||Devonport, V.||Hanworth, L.|
|FitzAlan of Derwent, V.||Harris, L.|
|Shaftesbury, E. (L. Steward.)||Haldane, V.||Hindlip, L.|
|Airlie, E.||Hutchinson, V. (E. Donoughmore.)||Howard of Glossop, L.|
|Albemarle, E.||Hunsdon of Hunsdon, L.|
|Birkenhead, E.||Peel, V.||Inchiquin, L.|
|Bradford, E.||Younger of Leckie, V.||Jessel, L.|
|Clarendon, E.||Kilmaine, L.|
|Denbigh, E.||Aberconway, L.||Kilmarnock, L. (E. Erroll.)|
|Doncaster, E. (D. Buccleuch and Queensberry.)||Ampthill, L.||Lawrence, L.|
|Annaly, L.||Lawrence of Kingsgate, L.|
|Eldon, E.||Ashton of Hyde, L.||Lovat, L.|
|Grey, E.||Askwith, L.||Merrivale, L.|
|Lindsay, E.||Barnard, L.||Methuen, L.|
|Lovelace, E.||Biddulph, L.||Mildmay of Flete, L.|
|Lucan, E. [Teller.]||Bledisloe, L.||Monckton, L. (V. Galway.)|
|Macclesfield, E.||Brownlow, L.||Montagu of Beaulieu, L.|
|Malmesbury, E.||Buckmaster, L.||Monteagle, L. (M. Sligo.)|
|Manvers, E.||Clanwilliam, L. (E. Clanwilliam.)||Newton, L.|
|Mar and Kellie, E.||Oranmore and Browne, L.|
|Mayo, E.||Cottesloe, L.||Rayleigh, L.|
|Morton, E.||Crawshaw, L.||Redesdale, L.|
|Mount Edgcumbe, E.||Cullen of Ashbourne, L.||St. Levan, L.|
|Onslow, E.||Danesfort, L.||Saltersford, L. (E. Courtown.)|
|Powis, E.||Darling, L.|
|Scarbrough, E.||Desart, L. (E. Desart.)||Saltoun, L.|
|Savile, L.||Stafford, L.||Wharton, L.|
|Shandon, L.||Sudley, L. (E. Arran.)||Wyfold, L.|
|Sherborne, L.||Sumner, L.||Wynford, L.|
|Somerleyton, L.||Templemore, L.|
|Southwark, L.||Thomson, L.|
|Beauchamp, E.||Fairlie, L. (E. Glasgow.)||Parmoor, L.|
|Derby, E.||Hastings, L.||Phillimore, L.|
|Leicester, E.||Hemphill, L.||Ponsonby, L. (E. Bessborough.)|
|Strafford, E.||Merthyr, L.|
|Mowbray, L.||Rowallan, L.|
|Arnold, L.||Muir Mackenzie, L.||Sandhurst, L.|
|Banbury of Southam, L. [Teller.]||Muskerry, L.||Stanmore, L.|
|O'Hagan, L.||Strachie, L. [Teller.]|
|Cawley, L.||Olivier, L.||Wittenham, L.|
§ Resolved in the affirmative, and Bill read 2a accordingly, and referred to a Committee of the Whole House.