§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY)
My Lords, I ventured to ask your leave when we were sitting yesterday to say a word or two upon the conversation which passed in your Lordships' House the day before. I am sorry to say that I was not present myself, for which I have already expressed my apologies to the House; but certain observations were made which I think it is almost impossible to pass over in absolute silence. I need not say how deeply I regretted that noble Lords had been put to any inconvenience by the postponement of the Parliament (Qualification of Peeresses) Bill at the last moment. That is a matter into which I need not go—a matter with which the Government had no concern whatever, but which undoubtedly did, in one or two cases, put your Lordships to great inconvenience. I will only say that I earnestly hope that so long as I have the honour to occupy the position which I now hold there will be no occasion to complain of a Government Order being treated in that way, that it should be postponed at the last moment without clue notice. But that happened, no doubt, from inadvertence on the part of my noble friend Lord Astor and it undoubtedly put us to inconvenience.
But the occasion was taken by my noble friend Lord Newton to make some general observations upon the conduct of business in your Lordships' House. I cannot help thinking that my noble friend spoke without careful consideration, because he is a very old member of the House, and I think if he had thought 1101 for a moment he would have realised that the kind of complaint which he made was not justified. He said that the whipping in your Lordships' House, that is to say, the services of my noble friend Lord Plymouth and his colleagues were very bad, and compared very unfavourably with the whipping in the House of Commons. The two functions are absolutely incomparable. There is no comparison between them. In the House of Commons, as he knows, and as I know, the Government have complete control of the greater part of the time of the House, and whenever they please they have the complete control of the whole of it. The function of the Whips—a very important function—in the House of Commons is to adjust Government business as they think best under the orders of the Leader of the House; but in your Lordships' House I am very glad to say we live in an atmosphere of much greater freedom. Within the very broad limits of the Orders of the House private Peers do exactly as they please, and the days on which the House sits are open to them within the rules of the House for whatever Questions or Motions or Bills they thank fit to put down, and the Government have no control whatever, nor have my noble friends, as to what shall be put down and when it shall be put down.
My noble friend complained that in the course of an important debate some other Motion was, as he said, sandwiched into the middle of the debate. That is quite true, but the Government could do nothing to stop it. We find ourselves presented with an important debate and We do our utmost to arrange for the business of the House, and find at the precise moment when it would be convenient for the House that the debate should be continued that another Order by a private Peer comes in the way. I am quite aware that it would be possible for the Government to put down a Motion displacing the precedence of the private Peer in order to insert whatever they thought would be better, and perhaps the House would support them, but I venture to say there is no man in your Lordships' House who would complain more instantly of such treatment than my noble friend Lord Newton if he were the private Peer concerned. I am perfectly certain he would complain and would use the invective of which he is such a master in order to exhibit the incom- 1102 petence, iniquity and tyranny of the Front Bench in having displaced his Order of the Day. The thing is not possible. The Government have no power of that kind except what the House gives them. We have a certain amount of influence, I admit, because noble Lords are good enough to have some confidence in our judgment, and I must honestly say that I have been extraordinarily well treated by private Peers since I have led the House. They have been very good in deferring to our wishes, but of course that power must be used with great economy and with great regard to the convenience of private Peers.
The conception which my noble friend Lord Newton seems to hold out of an omnipotent Leader of the House served by powerful Whips who can do exactly as they please is, as he knows and as your Lordships know, entirely remote from the truth. Last week, I think, there was some complaint as to the actual arrangement of the course of debates. That is a very delicate matter. As your Lordships know, the rule of the House is that any Peer has a right to speak whom the House wishes to hear and when he rises in his place if the House signifies their wish to hear him then he is entitled to the audience of the House. Everybody knows that for the convenience of the House private arrangements are made by which the wishes of Peers desiring to take part in a debate are studied as far as possible, and by a system of give and take and considerate treatment on either side between the various Parties which go to make up the House arrangements are come to and in my experience the complaints which are made are very few indeed. Peers are very reasonable and they are quite willing to fall in with the arrangements which are made. I admit that mistakes may sometimes occur and it is very difficult to adjust them, but I must say that instead of criticism I had hoped that we should in this very delicate task have received the support and assistance of my noble friend as we do from other members of your Lordships' House.
I have only one further word to say. In the course of the discussion the night before last I think my noble friend Lord Newton and the noble Earl opposite, Lord Beauchamp, made some suggestion 1103 for better arrangements of business towards the end of the Session. I do think there are considerable grounds for their plea. I do not know whether it would meet the wishes of the House, but I have been since then in communication with various Peers of great influence in the House and if it was thought a good plan I think it would be possible towards the end of the Session for the Government to have a little more power granted them by the House to arrange the business. If, towards the end of the Session, it was an understood thing or if there were an Order—whichever the House thought fit—that Government Orders should have precedence so that the Government could arrange the business as they thought convenient. I think it might add to the better conduct of the debates. You would not then have the difficulty of an important Bill being broken in half by a long delay and you would not have the very great objection of shortage of time for important stages of a Bill which is brought about by the present position. You would not have important stages of a Bill crowded out by other Orders which, however important in themselves, are not of the capital importance of Government Orders. The difficulties to which I have referred might be avoided and if I receive any encouragement from the House to introduce a system of that kind, subject to any limitations which might be thought well, I need not say that I should do my utmost to conform with the wishes of the House.
I may perhaps say in this connection that in respect of the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Bill I have just heard that my noble friend Viscount Templetown, who had an Order on the Paper for Monday, has been good enough to postpone it and consequently it will be possible to take that Bill on three successive Parliamentary days—namely, Thursday, Monday and Tuesday. I hope that will be convenient to the House.
§ VISCOUNT HALDANE
My Lords, the noble Marquess has made an important suggestion. It is that the House should give power to the Government to make, for the latter part of the Session, arrangements which would give Government business precedence over private business. That is the order of things in the House of Commons and I think it is very desirable that we should have 1104 some power of the sort here, too. It very often happens that somebody, obsessed with the importance of his own private measure or Motion—a measure or Motion which probably is of little interest to the rest of the House—puts it down in the very heart of some Government Bill in which the House is vitally interested. That should not be. It is not so in the other House and I do not think it should be so here. Therefore, in response to what the noble Marquess has said, if he will make a well-considered proposition of what I think must be a new Standing Order, we shall consider it on this Bench at any rate without any prejudice against it. As regards the other topic to which the noble Marquess alluded, the whipping of the House, I can only say that I think that it is remarkably well done. It was no business of Lord Plymouth's to take charge of the procedure of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and so far as the other business we do is concerned all I can say is that we find from Lord Plymouth that we have great courtesy and that he is always ready to enter into arrangements which will facilitate order in speech and in other matters. Therefore I have great sympathy with Lord Plymouth in the discussion which took place on his conduct the other day.
§ LORD NEWTON
My Lords, I need hardly say it is with great regret I learn that I have given offence to my noble friend Lord Salisbury, who has always shown me extreme courtesy. I am certain no one has the interests of this House more strongly at heart than my noble friend the Leader of the House. But at the same time I hope my noble friend will forgive me if I remind him that in days past I have heard him attack the Government when he has been in Opposition, when the Coalition Government was seated on the Front Bench, in even more vigorous terms than I employed myself.
§ LORD NEWTON
I was coming to that presently, but after all the Government and the Government Whips are very much the same thing. But in order at the earliest moment to set myself right with my noble friend I will at once withdraw the somewhat strong expression I used when I said the conduct of 1105 the business of your Lordships' is both slovenly and slipshod. I will withdraw those epithets and substitute unsatisfactory, which I think will command the general assent of everybody present except, perhaps, the noble Viscount who has just spoken. I do not know whether my noble friend would like me to summarise my complaints, but at the risk of wearying your Lordships I am prepared to do so in a very few words.
My complaints may be summarised in this way: First of all my complaint—and I am not the only person who shares this view—is that the Parliamentary Session is not utilised in a proper manner. At one period we literally do not know what to do with ourselves because we have so much time on our hands, and later on we have no time to consider anything. My second complaint—I do not wish to dwell upon it at length—is the question of uncertainty. I am not exaggerating when I assert that nobody here knows for certain what is going to occur on a particular day. They may think that a most important debate is about to take place and like my noble friend Viscount Novar come from a considerable distance pining to take part in a Division and find that for some obscure reason the subject has disappeared from discussion altogether. Then there is the interposition of other debates in important debates which have been started. There is no proper continuity of discussion here. A minor complaint which I have to make is that when we have a really important debate in this House it usually happens that it clashes with an equally, or perhaps more important debate in another place.
What is far more important—and I would draw my noble friend's special attention to this—is that it occasionally happens, as it did the other day, that an extremely important statement is made in the other House and no corresponding statement is made here. That is a fact which undoubtedly tells to our detriment and does not conduce to our dignity as an Assembly. With regard to the actual discussions in this House, I am not afraid to contend that these important debates might with advantage be prolonged. I do not mind hazarding the statement that if noble Lords who occupy the Front Benches—and there are not two Front Benches now, but three—are de- 1106 termined to express themselves at considerable length, which they have a perfect right to do, then it becomes almost impossible for people sitting on the Back Benches to make speeches. Personally I should have been very glad to have had an opportunity of speaking towards the end of the debate the other day and I am well aware of the fact that there were many other noble Lords anxious to make speeches who did not get the opportunity.
Now, to proceed to the other question upon which my noble friend attacks me, the question of the Whips here, I should like, if possible, to disarm the hostility of the Whips as quickly as I can by confessing that were I a Whip myself I believe the attendance would be much worse than it is already. Years ago the late Lord Lansdowne did me the honour of consulting me as to whom he should appoint as a Whip. The Conservative Party was then in Opposition. I said to him: "If you do me the honour of asking my advice I have no hesitation whatever in recommending a particular Peer. The Peer that I have in mind is Lord Willoughby de Broke, who has had considerable experience in the House of Commons, who is extremely keen on politics and is anxious to make himself useful." I would go so far as to say that had my suggestion been adopted all the difficulties of our Party at the time of the Parliament Act would, in all probability, never have occurred at all.
My noble friend found fault with me for the expression I used with regard to the Whips. Perhaps I was demoralised when comparatively young by my sojourn in the House of Commons, but it has always seemed to me that the cardinal principle which ought to govern the conduct of the Whips is that their first duty is to arrange, not vaguely but definitely, the business of the House. Their next duty is to ascertain the views of individuals, and nobody has ever taken the trouble to ascertain my views on any question whatever. Their next duty is to make a House; their fourth duty is to keep a House; and their last duty is to arrange for a list of speakers and secure that those who wish to speak shall obtain a chance of speaking. Can anybody honestly say that these objects are attained? I defy any noble Lord to get up and say that these objects have been 1107 attained or are ever likely to be attained. What my noble friend forgot to mention was that I stated the difficulties that exist in this case. I fully realise that the Whips are honest men struggling against almost insurmountable difficulties. But it is their duty to carry out, if they can, the objects which I have pointed out, and unfortunately, however good their intentions may be, they are not so successful as one might hope.
I do not say this as any reflection upon their personal qualifications whatever. All this is bound up with the question of attendance, or rather of non-attendance, and that was the reason why my noble friend Viscount Novar brought forward his complaint the other day. It stands to reason that if our methods of conducting business in this House are unsatisfactory then the attendance will be unsatisfactory also. I conclude by pointing out with a certain amount—I may say a good deal—of trepidation that in this matter Ministers do not set us a very good example. It frequently happens that Ministers are conspicuous by their absence, and so long as Ministers do not take the trouble to attend the House then I do not think they can reasonably expect a full attendance of your Lordships.
§ LORD LAMINGTON
My Lords, may I say in reference to what Lord Newton has said about continuity of debate that I think the matter rests very largely in your Lordships' own hands? The other evening I was appealed to specially to come down after dinner to continue the important debate on the Resolution moved by my noble friend Viscount Fitz-Alan of Dement, and to form a House. I came down here after dinner, about twenty or thirty Peers were present, and by ten o'clock the debate had fizzled out. I do not think that is a fair thing. I cannot remember who was the noble Lord who asked me to come down, but if you want a full debate on important questions it is for noble Lords themselves to take the trouble to come here. Why should we be so very reluctant to break an evening's pleasure by coming to this House? In the other House members do it every night, but here noble Lords will not give up their own pleasures three evenings in the week to take part in some important debate. The worst feature is that the other evening, when a question of Constitutional change was 1108 being debated, the Bar was crowded by members of the other House listening to the speeches of noble Lords, while there was only a sprinkling of Peers present. I do think that that is a matter which should be arranged better. I think, too, that perhaps the Government Whips might put pressure on Peers to come to the House when there is an important debate and that Peers should respond to the request to form a House on those days.
§ EARL BEAUCHAMP
My Lords, I confess I should like to speak up for absentee Peers who are not present either upon this particular occasion or similar occasions. It is the inalienable right of every British person, even if he is a Peer, to absent himself from listening to speeches he does not want to hear, and if he retires to the library or to the tea room at a moment when he does not wish to hear a particular speaker, I do not think that we ought to compel him to come and listen. But I hope that the noble Marquess who leads the House will not need any assurance from me of my anxiety to do what I can to assist in any measure that he proposes to secure the efficiency of the House. I think that it is very likely upon the lines that he suggests that some reform may be introduced to the general advantage of your Lordships' House.
It is, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, very obvious that earlier in the year, when these subjects are equally ripe for discussion, we have nothing to do, and it would be a great advantage if it were generally understood that these Motions and even Bills, which are often brought in more as a flag or a symbol than with any hope of legislation, should be brought forward early in the Session, leaving the present period as free as possible for His Majesty's Government. The fact of the matter is that your Lordships' House is a very jealous mistress and, unless you attend constantly, it is quite impossible to keep in touch with the business of the House. I think, if I may say so, that Peers are a little bit too ready to come down just at the moment that interests them and expect to find the business in which they are concerned then under discussion, while they are not ready to take a regular part in the discussions of your Lordships' House. I wish that they could 1109 do so and, if they could be so persuaded, I think that they would find that these irregularities are not so great as they imagine and that anybody who attends regularly will generally know what will be the subject for discussion in your Lordships' House.
Certainly the noble Marquess, the Leader of the House, seems to me, if I may say so, to be tending very wisely in that direction. He has told us the day upon which the Division on the Second Reading of the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Bill will be taken, and we had due notice of the moment when your Lordships would divide on the Resolution regarding the reform of the House of Lords. All this, I think, is in the right direction, and anything that the noble Marquess can do to warn us beforehand when other important Divisions of that kind are likely to take place will, I am sure, be to the general convenience.