HL Deb 01 March 1927 vol 66 cc261-92

VISCOUNT BURNHAM had given Notice to ask His Majesty's Government whether they will agree to the setting up of one or more Standing Committees of this House to which all Public Bills shall stand referred if and when they have been read a second tame, unless it be resolved that they shall be considered by Committee of the Whole House. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I hope that I am justified in recalling to your Lordships' attention alter five years the expediency of again setting up one or more Grand Committees for the consideration of public Bills. I feel that this is a question, not only of Parliamentary procedure but of Parliamentary principles. I believe that the circumstances of the case are far more compelling now than they were then. We have seemed to me to be drifting in this House from bad to worse, and our proceedings in regard to legislation nave become a Parliamentary scandal. They even tend to lower the reputation of Parliamentary government.

The opinion that is expressed of us in another place is not unduly favourable. Most of your Lordships have probably read the report of a debate that took place there in which a leading member of the Party represented by noble Lords on that Bench described us as "a museum of antiquities" and, I think, "a collection of senilities." That was, of course, not very complimentary, but five years ago the notion was abroad that there would be a reconstitution of this Chamber within a very short time, and that no doubt other by-laws and rules of procedure would be adopted, rather fuller and clearer than the Standing Orders of this House, which, as your Lordships know, are very archaic, but perhaps are none the worse for that. At the end of every Session, however, and for several years past it has been the same thing. We have a fresh chapter in the Book of Lamentations, and I think that we go to the very extreme of indignity on every occasion. Particularly was that the case last Session, when certain measures were passed into law which have already been severely censured by His Majesty's Judges for want of clearness and which this House had no opportunity whatsoever of considering or amending. Surely we should make some effort to restore decency to our proceedings. It cannot be thought advisable that we should continue without having the opportunity in Committee of giving any peal consideration to the Bills that are sent up to us from another place.

I do not think that any hope is widely entertained that there is going to be any change in the constitution of this House in the near future. That scheme, I think, has gone by default. I honestly think that this House has a good deal to thank itself for if it does not insist on playing a bigger part in our national life, especially, of course, in the lawmaking sphere. We can do a great deal for ourselves in insisting on our rights if we choose; if we do not choose, then I do not think that we have any reason to complain of the action of His Majesty's Government or of the House of Commons. In almost every language that I know of there is a proverb in this sense: "God helps those who help themselves." There is another which, I think, comes from the East of Europe: "Pray to God, sailor, but pull to the shore." This is just what I would urge as the spirit which should animate your Lordships in considering your own procedure.

As is well known, this is no new proposal in this House. Originally, in 1888, a Select Committee was set up to consider whether it was possible or desirable—there must be many noble Lords who remember it quite well—and in 1890 two such Standing Committees were, as a matter of fact, established. Their history is not very creditable to the political sense of Parliament. As Lord Herschell, Lord Chancellor, described them in those days, they were no doubt for review and revision, in the sense that they were meant rather to be Drafting Committees than such Committees as have been, for so many years, constituted in another place for the full consideration of Public Bills. Objection was taken, after a time, that they had misinterpreted their reference, and that they had begun to make Amendments in substance and not only Amendments in form, and on March 25, 1909, a debate was raised here on the Motion of Lord Camperdown, who was so great an authority, as your Lordships will recollect, on all these matters. He said that what had happened had been that they had taken upon themselves functions which the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, afterwards described as an anticipation or repetition of what went on in the House itself and in Committee of the Whole House, and that therefore what was done was redundant and in one case superfluous.

It was thought that the original intention was that they should only be Drafting Committees, and so, I believe, on the advice of the late Lord Salisbury action was taken by which these Bills were sent to the Drafting Committee after, and not before, their consideration in Committee downstairs. That is not the sense in which I believe the proposal was originally conceived, so far as I can make out, or in which I want to urge it here this afternoon. The debate ended in the appointment of another Committee, of which Lord Camperdown was Chairman, and which reported in June, 1910, "That it is not expedient under existing circumstances to continue the Standing Committees." It seemed to have become a matter of regular practice to negative the Motion that the Bill should be sent to Standing Committee, and therefore it was imagined that it was a mere formula and it was better to do away with it altogether.

Circumstances thirty and even twenty years ago were, however, very different from what they are now. Indignities which are put upon this House now would not then have been attempted, and I do not think better examples could be given than what has been happening in this House during the last few Sessions. It is said that ridicule kills. I do not know why we should make ourselves ridiculous here by tacitly allowing things to go on as they did in the case of the Judicial Proceedings (Regulation of Reports) Act, for instance, at the end of last Session, or in the case of other Acts of which noble Lords have special knowledge. I cannot conceive of any body which could do its work in Grand Committee, if I may be allowed to say so, better than the members of this House. There is special knowledge of all kinds in this House, in Imperial and local affairs, which would find its expression and realisation in Committee, and which cannot properly be taken advantage of on the floor of the House. There are many men, we know, who have not facility of expression, and many more, as I have seen myself, who are unwilling to delay the passage of Bills or to keep your Lordships sitting after the accustomed hour. If these Bills were remitted elsewhere the nation and the Empire would gain the whole fruit of an unmatched experience, such as a great number of those whom I am addressing have had in so many walks of life. That experience is quite lost here.

I have heard it said that proceedings in Committee here are creditable and practical. I have heard a few Bills discussed in that way, but I have heard many more rushed through in indecent haste at the Table—I do not say without members having an opportunity of discussion because they have it, and under our rules of discussion it is certainly accorded here as amply as in any legislative assembly you can find—but without proper attention being given to detail. It is doubtless true here, as it is in another place, that Public Bills, important though they are—and they are often sent to Grand Committees—are not the best examples of Committee work, or of Committee usefulness. Where Party considerations of great moment operate then no doubt the spirit of the Grand Committee is lost; there is less of the spirit of toe round table that one so much wants to have in framing legislation, which in these days is concerned so often with social reform or with industrial questions. On the other hand, since I have had the honour of sitting in this House, any number of Bills have been sent up here to which I am perfectly certain Amendments of the greatest use and value could have been made, in substance as well as in form. If, however, we only consider the question of form, we have so many noble Lords who are learned in the law that you could not have a better revising body than a Grand Committee of this House would be. In fact, in the very debate which I have quoted there was testimony borne by, I think, Lord Crewe to the useful work that had been done by the Grand Committees, even though they were shackled to so large an extent.

I have heard two objections raised to my proposal. A noble Lord, speaking with great experience here, said that you would never get Peers to attend. Well, I do not think so meanly of the spirit of self-sacrifice which animates the members of this House as to believe that they would not attend, even though there might be some personal inconvenience, at Grand Committees during the latter part of the Session. The other objection that. I have heard raised is this, No matter what form you adopt, and however you alter your rules of procedure, this House will take its orders from His Majesty's Government, and the Motion to refer a Bill to Grand Committee will be treated in the same trivial spirit as was undoubtedly shown towards the end of the system twenty years ago. There, again, I think that things are rather different. His Majesty's Government, I imagine, are not very hopeful about the passage of legislation for what is called reforming this House or reconstituting the Second Chamber. I am bound to say I have ceased to believe in its being done, as I cannot see the driving force in another place or in the country which could bring the effort to fruition. If that be so, may I submit to the noble Marquess who leads the House that, at least in existing circumstances and constituted as we are, we should be enabled to do our legislative work as efficiently and as decently as possible. There is neither efficiency nor decency in the present practice. Having submitted those arguments, and apologising for the strength of my language—though I have heard other noble Lords use language just as strong—I venture to ask the Question of the Government, and I only hope that I may have a favourable reply.


My Lords, I am not qualified to say whether the solution put forward by the noble Viscount is the best way of meeting the present condition of affairs in your Lordships' House, but of this I am absolutely certain, that it is high time that the House tried to assert itself in getting opportunities of properly performing the functions put upon it under our Constitution as a Second Chamber. Because nobody who has observed the course of business—I am only a recent observer, but nobody certainly since I came into this House—can have failed to see that day by day, not by Act of Parliament but by the act of the Government and by the acquiescence of the House, this country is really being deprived of a Second Chamber Constitution altogether. I am not talking at all from the point of view of great political questions. It may be that, as regards great political questions, nobody but the elected representatives of the people ought to interfere. I am not going to discuss that at the present moment. But surely in the interests of good legislation the least that this House may be expected to be, whatever the legislation brought before it, is a revising Chamber, to see that the legislation is duly considered, with the best possible assistance that can be given for the purpose of framing it in the best possible way in the interests of the country. That is exactly what we do not possess now.

I call to mind each of the last two Sessions. Take the Session of 1925. When that Session was coming to an end we had a number of Bills brought up to us, among them a Bill that was long overdue, called the Rating and Valuation Bill. That Bill was supposed to remedy a vast number of defects in our rating laws, defects which had existed for years and years, and the reform of which had been demanded for years and years. Indeed, in another part of the business of this House I have spent many long and laborious hours trying myself to understand how the principles of rating which were laid down as long ago, I think, as 1836, and which from a period immediately after that date have been condemned by Judges over and over again, could be made Applicable to the existing state of affairs and the existing state of rating hereditaments. When we are called upon in our judicial capacity to say how you are to rate a drain or a bit of railway passing through a rating district, and we find that the only assistance which the Acts give is to direct us to find out what a hypothetical tenant would pay for a lease of it or for renting it, you can imagine the kind of problems with which we are confronted.

That Bill, after taking months in the House of Commons, came up to this House full of flaws, as was pointed out at the time, involving an immense amount of investigation. I myself raised the point that it ought to go to a Select Committee, and the only answer I got was that of course it ought, but there was not time. And what is the consequence? The Act is now coming into force, and I was reading the other day a very interesting discussion in the Press originated by Sir H. Trustram Eve, who is a well-known authority on rating and valuation, in which he demonstrates that none of the maladies and evils which require to be remedied were remedied by that Act of Parliament. He said:— The Rating and Valuation Act, 1925, was passed"— and then he quotes the very words of the Act— 'to promote uniformity of valuation'; yet it tells some 1,770 rating authorities to make valuation lists without indicating the method to be followed. And so the drain will go on with the hypothetical tenant and the 1,770 rating authorities will be in the same fog as before the Ratting Act was passed.

Never to have really considered that Bill in this House, where there are numbers of members specially qualified to deal with it, being engaged in carrying out these rating matters in their various counties, is, I think, to use the words of the noble Viscount, little less than a scandal. One asks, what are we here for? Are we here for anything? Or have we just to come down here and look at each other?—so many of us as do it, and that is not many. That is not an isolated case. I think in the same year there was a Tithes Bill, in which a number of noble Lords showed a great deal of interest and at the same time competence to deal with it; but they were hurried up and told, in effect, "This thing must be got through before a certain day or the House cannot be prorogued." We were told that, although we had been for months trying to do something, or pretending to do something, from day to day. That Bill went through, and if I am to judge by my own correspondence, which is only of a moderate character compared to that of many noble Lords—for I am not engaged in politics and I have a great deal to do in other directions—that Bill created the greatest possible dissatisfaction amongst a large number of people as to the way in which their lives were affected. That was last year.

Then, this year, we had the Electricity (Supply) Bill sent up to us right at the very end of the Session. I moved to refer it to a Select Committee and from the number of members in the House who came up to me I have no doubt the sense of the House was that it ought to go to a Select Committee. But this is what was said to me: "But what are we to do? There is no time. You will risk the Bill." One person, in fact, told me that he had heard that the Prime Minister would resign if we sent the, Bill to a Select Committee. I did not think the Prime Minister was likely to do that, but I do know that these things are said. "The whole Session in the House of Commons," it was said, "has been given up to this Bill; the Electricity (Supply) Bill is very necessary and, therefore, because it is very necessary and has passed the House of Commons, for God's sake don't say anything about it; don't say anything about it here and let us all get away next Tuesday." That is the reality of this House. There is no use shirking it.

On the very last day I think it was that the House met three Bills came to us and there was a Motion down in the name of the Government that all Standing Orders should be suspended. I rose to ask whether, instead of going through the form of moving the Second Reading and Committee and Report stages and then the Third Reading, I should be in order to move that the Third. Reading be at once taken as it would be exactly the same thing. What happened? One of those Bills was a Bill of which I myself was in favour, though I think it was a very badly drafted Bill. I refer to the Judicial Proceedings (Regulation of Reports) Bill, which was moved by my noble friend Lord Darling with great complacency and some amusement, as is usual with him. I have no doubt nobody appreciated the situation more than he did.

The Bill became law. I will quote something from a newspaper which rather amused me, having regard to what had taken place. Referring to that Bill when it became an Act this newspaper said: The law only came into force a few weeks ago, but already a Judge of the Divorce Court has twice found it necessary to resort to means to defeat it. Twice he has given a résumé of the case for the express purpose of making public facts which otherwise the newspapers would have been forbidden to report; and in the second instance Lord Merrivale [the Judge concerned] remarked that the case under consideration was one where the deterrent of publicity would clearly be valuable. A method which produces that sort of thing is one to which this House ought seriously to turn its attention, with a view of seeing if some remedy cannot be found.

I do not think I am wrong in saying that that will go on perhaps more and more. This House has ceased to be a real factor in the framing of legislation—not in the policy but even in the revision of legislation; in the attempt to get what it is its duty to try to get under the Constitution, proper legislation, it has ceased to be a factor. One sees various meetings taking place at which various jokes are poked at your Lordships as being a somnolent assembly and as being incapable of ever doing anything. I do not wonder that these things get abroad, though I am bound to say that, given a fair trial, I believe there is for practical purposes and for carrying out the revision of legislation in a practical way, in this House more experience, more knowledge and more ability than can be found in any elected Assembly such as the House of Commons. I was myself in the House of Commons for some twenty-eight years and one knows perfectly well that when a Bill is sent to Committee there is a large amount of manœuvring by various sections of the Committee in order to thwart it, or in order to bring about various alterations, or in order to prevent a Bill becoming law, or to secure the insertion of certain provisions. The number of moves resorted to is innumerable. Those are not practices to which this House stoops. Here a Bill would be well considered if proper opportunities were given for our doing so. That, at least, is my opinion. We would, if given opportunities, do our duty as part of the Constitution for framing laws for the benefit of the people.

I am glad the noble Viscount has raised this Question. I am sure the Government are as alive to the difficulty as anybody else. I do not for a moment suggest that the noble Marquis who leads the House does not feel the impotence of this House as much as any other member of it. But the question is: Cannot an effort be made, or some arangement be come to regarding the way in which the business of the other House is arranged? The other House ought not to be always despising us as mere cyphers. Perhaps the reason is that we have made ourselves cyphers. There is one thing which I feel quite certain has resulted from the way in which we conduct, business in this House and that is that by degrees the members of this House begin to ignore their own position. There are about 700 Peers who are members of this House and any business ever done here is done by about fifty or sixty. The reason is that nobody takes the business seriously. When I say "nobody" I mean the bulk of the members of this House. They do not look upon it as an act of duty and a responsibility placed upon them. This is the kind of thing that you hear: "Are you going down to the House of Lords? What for? There will be nothing going on to-day, there will be no Division. The Government would rather you said nothing, the Government want to get away, they want to get the thing through and it is far better to say nothing." Whenever anybody does put down a Motion you hear mutterings of: "What a bore." Let us be perfectly frank about it. That is what it comes to. Now scarcely anybody will take the business of the House seriously and that attitude is becoming worse and worse.

It is looked upon now as a terrible calamity if anything goes on after seven o'clock. Nobody will stay. All that comes from the fact that we are not wanted. I remember when the Labour Government were in office that there was a Motion of a very important character with reference to the new naval base on which the late Marquess Curzon moved, I think, what amounted to a vote of want of confidence in the Labour Government. I had proposed to say a few words on that Motion, as I had been First Lord of the Admiralty and I happened to know a good deal about the subject. I mentioned to one of the Whips that I intended to speak, and he said "For Heaven's sake don't. If you do you will drive us past seven o'clock and we won't have a majority." I knew that that was so and I did not speak. I do not say that the House lost much, but I give that as an illustration of what is going on all the time. Why are we always talking about wanting more powers and saying that if we only had this or only had that then we would go ahead? We are going to have reform of the House of Lords to-morrow! I have heard that for the last fifteen years, every day since the Parliament Act was passed. But cannot we go on and do what is put upon us by the Constitution? Cannot we take care that when there is necessary business—and Heaven knows there is necessary business—put upon us it is done? Then let us see, as we go along, if we do that, whether we shall not have gained more confidence in the country when that great day comes, and the Greek Kalends have arrived, and the reform of the House of Lords takes place.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord who has just sat down rose, as I thought, to bless the noble Viscount who introduced this Motion, but in the end he seemed to me to curse him, because not one of the arguments which he addressed to us had much that was apparent to do with the problem in the noble Viscount's Question. The noble and learned Lord reminded me, as I sat listening to him, of a passage in a famous book—a book that was famous two generations ago. Two Bishops had made an appeal to the nation to do something for the advancement of the cause of the "Blessed Godhead," and Matthew Arnold replied in a book called "Literature and Dogma." He asked the two right rev. Prelates what was it that they asked the nation to do and of course they could not tell him. The noble Viscount who moved the Motion made a very instructive allusion in his speech. He said that Providence helps those who help themselves and that all nations have recognised that in their proverbs. But does not that apply to this House also? Are we not to help ourselves? Of course we should help ourselves. Then I listened to hear how it was proposed to be done. There is one obvious way in which it could be done and that is that we should take a little more trouble about public business, instead of coming here not having read Bills or corresponded or communicated about them, not having prepared ourselves for the debate, with the result that the House is in a slack condition. We could work at Bills as they are worked at in the other House and come here prepared for our duties.

That seems to me to be a very much Netter plan than the plan suggested in the Motion of setting up a Standing Committee or Committees to which Bills are to be referred automatically. How would such a plan work out? Both the noble Lords who have spoken have alluded to legal Bills as occasioning much difficulty. No doubt the Rating Bill and the Electricity (Supply) Bill were Bills which involved many legal questions. For the assistance of the House they desiderated the help of the legal members, those who have given special study to juridical matters. How in all the world do they imagine they are going to get that help? Do they think that the legal members of this House have nothing to do during the early part of the day and are free to come down here, say, at twelve o'clock or eleven o'clock to attend a Grand Committee? Why, the legal members of this House, like myself, begin work in the tribunals at half-past ten and they do not finish until a quarter to four or four o'clock. How could the Lord Chancellor or the noble and learned Lord himself attend with the obligations which are placed upon them? It is impossible to think you could get that assistance which you most want by introducing this system. It may work in the other House, it does work, because there members are not Judges. But here it most certainly would not work and your Standing Committees would not have that kind of special knowledge which is the very thing you are calling for. I think that in itself is fatal to the analogy between the House of Commons and this House. You cannot get that kind of Standing Committee that will sit in the Morning and do the work.

But that does not leave us in a hopeless position. If this House took advantage of its opportunities, instead of slack Benches and of people coining down here knowing nothing about a Bill until they pick it up from the Table, you might have a very different state of things. Reference was made to the Electricity (Supply) Bill. The sittings in Committee on the Electricity (Supply) Bill were about as good an example of what a Grand Committee ought to be as I have seen. The House was full of members with special knowledge of the questions which arose, partly because they have been directors or connected with electricity in some special department, partly because they were deeply interested in the subject. What was the consequence? We had as good a discussion of the clauses of that Bill in Committee as I venture to say we have had of any Bill. The noble Lord laughs. He wanted—and I think with reason—the Bill to be taken earlier in the Session. But whose fault is it that Bills are not taken earlier in the Session? It is our fault, because we do not insist on it. We do not say that we will not entertain consideration of a, Bill unless we get it in sufficient time, and the result is that we have to do the best within the restricted limits we have set ourselves.

If the House of Lords was a keen chamber, which attended closely to its work and showed enthusiasm about it and a wish to be the noble second Chamber of which the noble and learned Lord spoke to us, it would approach the whole matter in a different spirit from that of to-day, and I venture to say that under our present procedure you would get as good an equivalent of a Grand Commit tee as you could wish to have. I do not think this House is suited, either by its constitution or because of the obligations of its members, to sitting early in the day. It cannot do it, and the result is that what we have to do really is to make the most of ourselves. Do we make the most of ourselves? We certainly do not. What is the true cause of the position into which this House has come? It is a considerable slackness, a slackness which gets us out of relation to opinion in the country. That is what, happened previous to the Budget that led to the proceedings which culminated in the present law restraining our action. And it results still more from the indifference of the greater part of the members of this Rouse to the business that they have to transact.

Let somebody arise, let the noble Marquess make an appeal to the House to bestir itself and to show more diligence, let steps be taken to insist that people shall take more interest in the business that they have to transact, and then the bottom will be knocked out of the case which the noble Viscount opposite has made and no need for such a Question will arise in the future. Until we do that, it is idle to talk of making organic changes in the House of Lords. It is not the machine that is at fault; it is the driving. Let us get more driving power, and whether we have it or not depends, not on outside factors, not on changes in our arrangements, but upon ourselves. There have been many occasions when I have seen questions of the utmost importance come up here to be perfunctorily discussed because there was no one here who was really interested in dealing with them.

One of the most unfortunate circumstances is that in this House, instead of a Minister with responsibility and with some power of dealing with the objections that are taken to measures that come before us, we find somebody rising on that Bench who is not even an Under-Secretary and who says, almost in a stock phrase, that he is not in a position to give an answer to the questions put to him because his instructions do not enable him to say yes or no and he has no authority to agree to the acceptance of any change. How can you hope that this House will ever get better in that state of things? Let the Cabinet Ministers and the other Ministers who sit upon that Bench take their part in the conduct of Bills. Let them insist upon being in the same position as Ministers in the other House to say yes or no, and let them consult as the debate goes on and see whether they can do anything to meet our wishes. It is one of the most deplorable facts in this House that debating Bills so often becomes, for the reason to which I have alluded, an idle ceremony, and I hope that the noble Marquess, when he expresses his opinion upon this question, will tell us that he too thinks that there, or in that region, lies the centre of the difficulty and that he proposes to address himself to its improvement.


My Lords, I personally and, I think I may add, His Majesty's Government are very grateful to my noble friend, the noble Viscount, for having brought this very important subject under your Lordships' notice in this formal manner. Nothing but good can come of our debating the difficulties in which this House finds itself owing to the modern method of business. The noble and learned Viscount, the Leader of the Opposition, in the observations which he has just made attributed all our ills to the want of diligence of members of the House and the absence of Cabinet Ministers from the Treasury Bench. I agree that we might be more diligent, and I think it is a great pity that many of your Lordships who are well qualified to help in the business of the House and of the country do not put in an appearance. But when the noble and learned Viscount almost shakes a menacing finger at me across the Table, I would venture to point out to him that, owing to numerical reasons, it is easier for hint to muster his following than it is for me—


I beckoned to you as to a powerful angel. I was not menacing you.


With regard to the absence of Cabinet Ministers from this Bench, although in a large measure I agree with the noble and learned Viscount, I did not observe that when he and his friends were in office the situation was better than it has been since we have been responsible for affairs. I have ventured to make these observations — I hope good-humoured observations—in answer to the noble and learned Viscount, but the situation is not an occasion for "chaff." It is really very serious. I do not think that either the noble Viscount who introduced the subject or my noble and learned friend who sits behind me has in the least exaggerated the evil of the present situation. I say this with a full sense of responsibility. It has a calamitous effect upon the position of your Lordships' House and, what is more important, even than that, upon the legislation of the country. I think that it is most deplorable that we do not have a full opportunity of exercising our functions, and I am sure that your Lordships will not be surprised at my saying so, for I very often said so when I was in a position of greater freedom and less responsibility.

I do not, of course, agree with my noble friend, the noble Viscount, in his pessimism about House of Lords reform. I do not agree with him, and I am quite sure that the Government do not agree with him. We are by no means in that frame of mind. Undoubtedly the functions of your Lordships' House, as things stand at present, in the matter of actually deciding upon the fate of Bills have been very much curtailed, and those who have curtailed our powers—as I think, most unfortunately curtailed them—always fall back in their arguments upon the alternative function of your Lordships' House. They say that the Second Chamber exists for the purpose of revision. They admit that we cannot have a single-chamber Constitution, but they say that what we want is a Second Chamber for revision. Every Radical throughout the country will say that; or rather, I will not say every Radical—

EARL RUSSELL indicated dissent.


The noble Earl is no longer a Radical; he is a Labour Peer. Every Radical throughout the country says that the House of Lords is there for the purpose of revision. We cannot perform revision, we are not able to do it, we are not allowed an opportunity of doing it, and the House and the country should realise that, as matters stand, the great measures of the Session have come up to your Lordships at such a time that adequate revision has been impossible. This is, I believe, the universal opinion of your Lordships' House. I do not think that there are two opinions about it. It is not merely a question of matters of drafting. In details of substance, and of very great substance, revision is of prime importance. My noble friends have instanced two or three Bills. Owing to circumstances with which your Lordships are acquainted, I was not in my place during the latter part of last Session, and accordingly I cannot speak of what occurred at that time, but I can quite well believe from the accounts that they have given that the proceedings at the end of last Session were deplorable in many respects. I have no reason to think that they were worse than they have been in previous Sessions, but that they were had I have no doubt.

The mention of previous Sessions reminds me that my noble and learned friend especially instanced the Eating and Valuation Bill, 1995, as an example of the impossibility of your Lordships' powers and opportunities for revision being properly exercised. I know a good deal about that, because I was the Minister in your Lordships' House who was in charge of that Bill, and I agree with every word that my noble friend says. I am not reflecting upon the other House of Parliament at all, but that Bill reached your Lordships' House in what I can only describe as a foul condition of drafting. It required, for drafting alone, a vast number of Amendments, and your Lordships' House is very well qualified, indeed eminently qualified, for purposes of that kind. It is not the most important purpose of all, though it is a very important purpose, but it was quite out of the question that you could check all the drafting Amendments which, at my instance, your Lordships put into that Bill. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I could understand them myself, and I am certain that none of your Lordships, except perhaps a few who had experience in rating maters, could have followed the Amendments in draftsmanship. In matters of substance, too, there were a large number of questions which required and ought to have received most careful attention. I have not followed that Bill since it became an Act, and I do not know how it works. It has hardly had time to show itself, but I should not be surprised if any number of holes were found in it in consequence of the way in which it was passed through this House.

It does not follow, however, that the Government, or I myself, if I may say so respectfully, was wrong in asking your Lordships to assent to the Bill in those circumstances, any more than it was necessarily wrong on the part of my noble colleagues, when last winter I was not here, that they took a similar course in respect of other legislative proposals. No! We are always placed in a dilemma, as your Lordships know. Here is a Bill—the Rating Bill, or the Judicial Proceedings Bill, for instance—which, ex concessis, is, on the whole, a good Bill. It has taken a great deal of time, perhaps, in another place, to get through, or it has had great difficulties in finding time in another place to get through, but it has got through. Are you to sacrifice al those labours, and that opportunity, or are you to pass the Bill under very inefficient procedure in this House? That is the dilemma which is presented to every Government. It has nothing to do with the Party in power. Every Session, and very often twice a Session, that dilemma presents itself, because the same sort of argument is used at the end of the summer sittings and at the end of the winter sittings.

The cry is always: "Let us get the Bill through." The Government have no choice, in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, but to say to the House: "We ask you to pass the, Bill, to suspend the Standing Orders, or to allow a very few days between the various stages of the Bill, so that there may be time to get it through." I think your Lordships are aware that when I make these proposals I do so with the most profound regret. I have done my best, since you have done me the honour to allow me to lead the House, to give all the time possible between the stages of Bills, and I shall always do so as long as I occupy my position, but there are limits to what one can do. That dilemma to which I have referred is always presented.

I must apologise to the House for having been so long away from the Question. I will come back to the Question. What about a Standing Committee? My noble friend says it is the right remedy, and, of course, he told you what was the previous history of the Standing Committees of this House. I think he was not quite right in saying, as I understood him to say—perhaps I misunderstood him—that one of the reasons for the failure of that experiment was that the Standing Committees dealt with drafting, and drafting alone.


Exactly the opposite, but perhaps I did not express myself clearly. The House complained that the Committees had begun to make Amendments in substance, although originally it was said they were not intended to make such Amendments, and so they were in conflict with the House.


That, I think, is quite accurate. What happened was this: when Standing Committees first started, consideration in the Standing Committee preceded consideration in the whole House, and then it was complained that the field was reaped, and there was nothing for your Lordships, as a Committee of the Whole House, to do; then, after a Bill had been through Standing Committee, if any suggestion were made in Committee of the Whole House, the answer was always given that it had been considered and decided in Standing Committee, and it was better not to reopen the point. Complaint was made, which appears to have commanded general assent, that the existence of these Standing Committees obliterated the Committee stage in the House as a whole, and when that situation was explained to the House they altered the order of procedure, as my noble friend has said, and made Standing Committee follow Committee of the Whole House, instead of preceding it. It was hoped that that would get rid of the difficulty but, as a matter of fact, it only transferred it, and whereas the fact of the Standing Committee formerly killed the Committee stage of the House, so the fact of the Committee stage of the Whole House killed the Standing Committee. They could not both occupy the same ground, and after that change was made the Standing Committee gradually sank until it became a mere form.

When I had the honour of joining this House I remember that the ordinary Question which was put at the Table, as one of the forms of the House, was that the Standing Committee be negatived. That happened in the case of every Bill, and the stage was ignored altogether. That I think is very suggestive. Taking that history of the Committees it does not look as if that was the right remedy. I am not saying, of course, that a very careful scrutiny of a Bill amongst a small number might not be a very good stage in a Bill, and, of course, it is a procedure which has very often been used in both Houses of Parliament; that is, the reference of a Bill to a Select Committee, in order that it should be put into good shape before the Committee stage of the Whole House is undertaken. I think that is a remedy which has been proposed by my noble and learned friend Lord Carson several times. I think there is a good deal to be said for it in the case of a very great number of Bills.

I do not mean to say that at this moment I am entirely rejecting the suggestion of my noble friend Viscount Burnham, but I see very great difficulties in the way. What is the real difficulty?—because that is the point we have reached. It is not want of diligence on the part of members of your Lordships' House. Undoubtedly the Parliament Act, for which so many noble Lords opposite were responsible, did a great deal to take the confidence out of the House of Lords. They felt that, the country having so decided, they no longer had the confidence of the country, and with that feeling they lost interest in the work of your Lordships' House. I think, if I may respectfully say so, that they were quite wrong. They ought to have stood out against that feeling of pessimism, and waited till a better time came. But undoubtedly that is one of the historical reasons for what happened.

But the true reason of the difficulties of your Lordships' House lies in the change of attitude of the House of Commons. If they will discuss a Bill up till the very end of the Session—all the important Bills—why then, between the time the Bill reaches your Lordships' House and the Prorogation there is very little interval. That is the heart of the difficulty. Is it conceivable that the House of Commons will take less time? I do not mean to say we have any authority in this matter, but I am only putting the question to your Lordships as observers of affairs. Do you think it is likely that they will restrain themselves, that they will restrict their observations and all the petty manœuvres which go to make up Parliamentary life, and which take up so much time? I do not believe a word of it. They will not restrict their observations, they will not shorten their proceedings, they will always carry on as long as they can; and as long as you have the Prorogation, acting like a guillotine, to put an end to a Bill when it arrives, the difficulty in which your Lordships' House is placed will always continue.

What is so exasperating is that, although we are put to this immense inconvenience in November and the beginning of December, and although we are debarred from doing our work properly in those months, yet in February, March, and April we have nothing to do. We have debates like this, and some of them are very useful, but they are not what I may call a full day's work. We have no legislative work to do. If we had the opportunity of discussing Bills in February and March then the difficulty would be at an end. I am not suggesting anything. I am not suggesting that that is a possible plan; I am only pointing out where the real difficulty lies. And until that difficulty is faced, and some solution on those lines is applied, I do not believe we shall ever get out of the difficulty in which we stand. At any rate, I feel certain that by itself the Standing Committee system will do no good. Even supposing it were not open to the objections I have pointed out, the dilemma to which I have called your Lordships' attention would always present itself whether there was a Standing Committee system in the House or not.

We should always find that about the beginning of December a very important Bill would come up from the House of Commons, and it would always be apparent that if it were sent to the Standing Committee it would be killed. Therefor the Minister, who might be the noble Earl opposite, Lord Beauchamp, leading your Lordships as the Leader of the House, or who might be the noble and learned Viscount opposite (Lord Haldane) or one of ourselves, would always be found to say to the House: "We are all for the Standing Committee, but we shall lose the Bill if we send it to the Standing Committee. We are in this dilemma: are you going to throw away all the work of the House of Commons, and deprive the country of the benefit of this very important Bill? We move that the Standing Committee be negatived." That would always happen. Even supposing that while we were working the new system at first the new broom was sweeping clean, it would very soon become a ragged broom, and the ordinary question we should hear put from the Woolsack would be: "That the Standing Committee be negatived," just as it was in Lord Camperdown's days, when he moved, in 1910, that the Standing Order should be repealed.

It is for these reasons that, although I do not absolutely reject it, I cannot hold out any hope that the Government will accept the remedy which the noble Viscount seeks to apply. But there must be a remedy: of that I am quite convinced; and if your Lordships say to me and to my noble friends that it is for the Government to provide a remedy, all I can say is that the Government will give due diligence to the subject, and will do their best to provide it.


My Lords, I am sure it will be a matter of very great satisfaction to the whole House that there should have been so much unanimity in this discussion. We are all agreed as to the existence of the evil, and with the exception of the noble Viscount who initiated the discussion, I think we are practically all agreed as to the difficulties which exist in the way of instituting a Grand Committee system in your Lordships' House. But, whereas we are agreed in complaining, we are not agreed on the remedy to be applied. No doubt the noble Marquess the Leader of the House really touched the point when he said that these Bills reach us at the end of the Session, and at the end of the Session we are obliged to consider them and to take them almost as they are. The noble Marquess, I think, must not altogether acquit himself of blame for the fact that the Government constantly says it will not accept Amendments introduced by your Lordships' House, because that, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why your Lordships are not very anxious to attend regularly. If they come down and move an Amendment, which may be a very good Amendment, the Government tell them, while perhaps even admitting that it would be an improvement in the Bill, that they cannot accept the Amendment, because, if it were sent down to the other House, there would not be time to discuss it, and the Bill would be lost. That is very disheartening to private members of your Lordships' House.

But there is another reason, which I think we ought to mention, why noble Lords do not take a larger share in discussions in Committee in this House, and that is that in the case of all Bills of first class importance the discussion is very largely limited to experts on the subject. The noble and learned Viscount sitting near me (Lord Haldane) spoke, I thought, quite truly of the admirable discussions in this House on the Electricity (Supply) Bill. Nothing could have been better done, but naturally members of your Lordships' House who were not conversant with that subject were unwilling to take part. I think, therefore, that on very important Bills it is the very high standard of discussion in this House which prevents noble Lords who are not experts from taking part and from moving Amendments.

As I felt that this debate had a familiar ring about it I turned up the report of a similar discussion which took place at a time when no other member of your Lordships' House was a member except, I think, the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, and my noble relative Lord Lincolnshire. We are the three survivors of that occasion. In 1901 the Factory and Workshop Act was introduced by the Government of the day, and the proceedings then were really far worse than anything we experience nowadays, except the case of the Judicial Proceedings (Regulation of Reports) Bill at the end of last Session. On the occasion I refer to the Bill was read a second time in your Lordships' House, no Amendments were accepted except those moved by the Government, there were 104 clauses in the Bill, because I see that in the OFFICIAL REPORT it is stated that Clause 104 and the remaining clauses were agreed to with drafting Amendments, the Amendments were reported, the Bill was read a third time with the Amendments and passed and sent back to the House of Commons—all on the same day that it received a Second Reading in your Lordships' House. Here was a Bill of more than 104 clauses which was dealt with entirely in the course of one afternoon in spite of the fact that protests were made. I should add that I was wrong in saying that there were only three of the present members of your Lordships' House who were then members of it, because the Archbishop of Canterbury was then the Bishop of Winchester, and he protested against the action of the Government, as also did Lord Windsor, the father of the present Lord Plymouth, Lord Rosebery, Lord Spencer, the Duke of Northumberland and a number of other Peers.

I venture to say that there is a remarkable improvement in our usual proceedings from the proceedings that afternoon. If the noble Marquess will allow me to say so, I think that since he has been a Leader of the House there has been a distinct improvement in this matter. Bills have reached this House earlier than they used to do before he became Leader, and I think it is only right that we should express our thanks to the noble Marquess for his action in the matter. Your Lordships' House is perfectly willing to discuss these Bills with very great care and ability. I hope the debates which used to take place—the noble Marquess will remember them—during the time when the Liberal Government was in office in 1906, 1907 and subsequent years, will again take place. There used to be admirable discussions in Committee then and there is really no reason why that should not be so again, if the Government of the day were sufficiently frightened of your Lordships' House. We were obliged in those days to conform in every way to the wishes of noble Lords who were sitting on the Front Opposition Bench. Bills were introduced here with a plentiful margin of time before the necessary Prorogation and in those circumstances we had very useful discussions. It is, I think, very desirable that something of that kind should take place again.

I do not know whether the new arrangements which are contemplated by His Majesty's Government will assist us in this matter or not, for I am not quite sure how they will work. I never had the advantage of being a member of another place and therefore I do not quite know at what season of the year it is essential that financial business should be taken. The noble Marquess said, quite justly, that it is not to be expected that in another place they would ever take less time in discussing Bills which come before them. I do not wish to suggest that they should take less time. The suggestion is they should take the discussions at a time of the year which will enable this House to have the Bills earlier. If they were to take the discussions earlier in the year that might be so. When I speak of the year I speak rather of the Parliamentary year than the calendar year. I do not know whether it would be possible for the Government to adjourn the financial business till the end of the Session and deal with legislative business in the earlier part of the Session. I am not quite sure how these suggestions are affected by the proposals of His Majesty's Government, but it would clearly be possible if they were carried out that we should have more time to discuss Bills. For my own part I confess that I do not like the suggestion of the Grand Committee as advocated by the noble Viscount. I think what we need in this House is not less work to do but more work to do. The suggestion of a Grand Committee, if adopted, would certainly go far to reduce the amount of work which there is for your Lordships to do.

There are a number of smaller matters which might be taken into consideration to increase the importance of the discussions in your Lordships' House, but upon those it is not necessary for me to dilate to-day. I do hope, however, that the discussion which has taken place may have some effect in helping the noble Marquess to persuade His Majesty's Government to see that Bills come to us in plenty of time. May I also tell the noble Marquess that if on a subsequent occasion a Private Member's Bill—not a Government Bill, but a Private Member's Bill—is brought into this House and is expected to be rushed through as was done with the Judicial Proceedings (Regulation of Reports) Bill last year, he will find that there is objection to be found to such procedure in several quarters of the House.


My Lords, mention has been made of the Judicial Proceedings (Regulation of Reports) Bill by three members of your Lordships' House. It was I who introduced that Bill into this House. Having been introduced into the House of Commons by Sir Evelyn Cecil and received there very careful attention, probably too careful attention, it came here at the very last moment possible to allow of its being passed into law. It had been the subject of reference to Committees and I think from the way that Bill has worked it would have been a calamity if it had been sacrificed merely because the time was short. I have since then been regarded as the culprit and reproached for it. I think that in the circumstances I behaved rather well.

But I did not rise merely to say that. I rise because it seams to me there is a point; which has not yet been considered in this debate. We have been told that there is a dilemma because Bills come so late from the House of Commons, that there is nothing else to be done by the Leader of this House but for him to say: "I regret it, no one regrets it more than I do, but I must ask your Lordships to do as you always do, pass the Bill through all its stages without another word of discussion, or with as little as can be got in before half-past seven o'clock." The noble and learned Viscount opposite suggested that we should do something strong, something defiant, something to assert our own position, that we should say to the House of Commons: "As you have chosen to send this Bill up to us so late we will not consider it; it may be vital, it may be an absolute necessity for the country, but we will not consider it and it shall not pass into law." But why should not either the Prime Minister or the Leader of this House, when he is asked when it is proposed to take the Prorogation, say: "When the work of Parliament is done." If anybody in the House of Commons asks the supplementary question, as would be the case I am certain, "What do you mean by 'When the work is done?'" the answer should be: "When the work has been done in this House and has been done effectively with due consideration by the House of Lords."

I do not know why either House should rise on some particular fixed day. The Government remind one of a hero of the past, Procrustes. Why should they not say: "It depends upon yourselves when you go to Margate or wherever you are going. Do the business instead of taking so much time over the earlier stages of this Bill before it goes to the House of Lords. Know this, that you may spend what time you like over it and so will the House of Lords." When the Motion comes on in this House, that the House do adjourn on such and such day, why, instead of saying with regard to a Bill, as the noble Viscount has advised, "We will not consider this Bill; we will leave our work undone," should not we say, and see how it will be relished in another place: "We are in no hurry; we can amuse ourselves in London; we are not going away until this Bill has passed." Let us see what would be the result of that before we blame ourselves quite so much as some have done this afternoon.


My Lords, I do not want to take up the time of the House but wish merely to ask one question of His Majesty's Government. I have never been able to understand why more Bills are not introduced into this House and I ask respectfully of His Majesty's Government whether they have considered that, and whether they will take steps to introduce inure Bills, in this House.


My Lords, in answer to the noble Marquess, I think His Majesty's Government are entirely in agreement with the suggestion he has made. If your Lordships study the list of Bills introduced during the last two years you will find that quite a large number of important Government Bills have been first introduced in this House, and I am sure he will see as time goes on that the same course will be followed.


My Lords, may I suggest that one remedy would be to bring in fewer Bills?


My Lords, the noble Marquess who leads the House made observations with which. I think, practically the whole House finds itself so much in agreement that I had hoped I should be able to congratulate him on sitting down without mentioning the Parliament Act. Unfortunately that hope was destroyed just at the end of his speech. I do not think the condition in which we find ourselves is really due to the Parliament Act. It is really due to the fact that the other House has the ear of the country, administers the money of the country and has practically complete control of finance. Therefore, your Lordships really do stand unfortunately in a somewhat subordinate position in this matter. When it is suggested that we should assert ourselves and should refuse to pass Bills or refuse to consider them, that is a thing which I think probably all of us feel we cannot do. What happens when the Leader of the House makes an appeal at the end of the Session? The appeal has to be responded to. It cannot be refused. A sense of duty and of responsibility makes it impossible to refuse to pass a Bill at the end of the Session.

The functions of this House are to be divided, I think, to some extent. I hardly think that this House can set itself against—and it has not tried for a long time, except in the case which led to the passing of the Parliament Act, to set itself against—any strong current of feeling in the country. It cannot make material and drastic alterations fittingly, I think, in important Bills because it has not the requisite weight behind it to carry those alterations. Your Lordships will remember the case of the Trade Disputes Act which has been denounced, I think, by many of the members of the Party opposite and which merits many criticisms. That Act came up to your Lordships' House where there was an overwhelming majority opposed to the Government of the day, but your Lordships did not think fit to refuse its passage or to amend it seriously in its passage, although there were many perfectly obvious Amendments which might have been made and which it might well have been thought in the interests of the country should have been made. That was before the Parliament Act, when your Lordships were still complete masters in your own House.

Then you come to revision, which is a different thing from drafting, actual revision in the sense of making small changes which would make a thing better and may be advantageous. I agree with other speakers that the hundred or so of your Lordships who regularly attend our proceedings here constitute a body as fitted as any body in this country lot purposes of revision. You have experience, you have knowledge of these matters, you have leisure and you have intelligence. Besides that you have, of course, a Parliamentary sense of responsibility and a sense of public duty. I conceive no body more fitted to exercise the power of revision. But consider one Bill which was mentioned, the Rating Bill. Anything serious in the revision of the Rating Bill might be considered to be a breach of privilege by the other House. I am not sure whether we are allowed to do anything in the matter of the incidence of rates any more than we are in regard to the incidence of taxes.




I do not know whether we are. At any rate I think alterations in that Bill probably would not have been accepted in another place. We have, of course, been met, long before the Parliament Act, in matters of finance—and after all finance is wrapped up with the most important matters—with the plea of privilege, which we cannot get over and should not try to get over.

When we come to the question of drafting, there, I think, we have a responsibility which we may well exercise and which we ought not to shirk. It is not merely a case of making a Bill into a good Bill as a theoretical matter. The bad drafting of Bills, which is the result of compromises in Committee and hurried passages in another place, costs the citizens of this country thousands and tens of thousands of pounds every year through long and complicated Litigations. Many of those litigations are carried on by public authorities with public money. The whole of that is waste which could be avoided by proper drafting. If the noble Marquess can devise any plan—I am not going to suggest one myself—by which something could be done at the later stage of a Bill, after Committee Amendments have been introduced, to see that they make a coherent and intelligible whole so that the Bill is sent out as something which Judges have later to construe as an intelligible whole, I think he would render a great service to the country and every one would have reason to be grateful to this House for doing that work.

I agree that the method of Standing Committees, which the noble Viscount proposes, would not work. I was, for a good many Years, a member of a Standing Committee myself. The only occasion on which I can recall its doing anything useful was the occasion of the Incest Bill, which for obvious reasons it was better to discuss behind closed doors. We did so discuss it and made useful Amendments, but I cannot recollect that the Standing Committee served any other useful purpose. Further, there is an obvious conflict between a Committee of the Whole House and a Standing Committee.

I do not entirely share the feeling expressed by the noble Viscount behind me as to our supineness and want of diligence. He may be referring to those who do not attend your Lordships' House because they have lost interest. I think one of the reasons why they have lost interest was pointed out by the noble Earl, Lord Beauchamp. When there is a permanent overwhelming majority on one side of the House it produces a feeling, to some extent, of uselessness—to those on one side of the Muse because an Amendment, however well intended and possibly however good, does not have any chance of acceptance if the Government puts its foot down; and to those who are supporters of the Government, because they feel that with such an overwhelming majority it is of no consequence whether they attend or not. The result is that your discussions are carried on with what I may call a nucleus craw. But I should not say it was true that the hundred or so members of your Lordships' House who do attend are supine in the consideration of Bills or approach them without knowledge of the subject. I do not think the noble Viscount can have intended to refer to those members of your Lordships' House who really do the work of the House, because I think we do take trouble to read Bills, at any rate those of us who intend to discuss them, and to know what they are about. I only rose to make these few observations and to point out that revision is one thing and drafting is another thing, and that to make serious Amendments on principle is still a third, on which I doubt whether we should be wise to embark.

House adjourned at ten minutes before six o'clock.