HL Deb 13 July 1938 vol 110 cc792-820

LORD NEWTON asked His Majesty's Government whether there are any Constitutional objections to conducting the judicial business of the House in one of the Committee rooms, thereby enabling the House to meet at an earlier hour for legislative business; and whether they will appoint a Committee to consider the matter. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that it will not be thought that in putting this Question upon the Paper I am wanting in respect for the Law Lords and that I am meditating an attack upon the Constitution. My sole justification for moving in the matter is that I have certainly sat in this House for a longer period than anybody here at present with the exception of my noble friend Lord Crewe. I have in fact been in this House for over forty years, and anyone who has had experience of this House must have realised long ago that business flows with a very unequal current: that usually we have very little or next to nothing to do, and that at other times—probably for only a short time—we are overwhelmed with business. When I first got into the House forty years ago this House sat on four days a week: Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and as far as I remember there was practically never any objection to sitting after dinner. I will explain, before I have finished, why feeling has changed on that point.

At the present moment we sit three days a week, and according to my calculation there are only about eight hours available in the week for what I would call effective debates as against ineffective debates. I arrive at that calculation by a very simple process. As a rule debates here which are announced to start at a quarter past four do not begin before half past four. What usually happens is this. If it is an important debate it is opened by an expert, and experts are naturally rather long-winded people. The noble Lord who has raised the question takes a considerable time to expound his views. He is followed by other experts, who are also rather inclined to be prolix, and then they are followed, probably by one of the Leaders of the Opposition, and perhaps by a member of the Government. By that time, if we have arrived at half past six or seven, everybody who rises does so with abject apologies for intervening at so late a period in the sitting. The attendance begins to fall off; it gradually dwindles and sometimes reaches perfectly derisory proportions.

Not very long ago I noticed that there was a debate on Jamaica; an important debate because it concerned very serious occurrences which had taken place there. On that occasion one of the speakers was the present Lord Harlech, who up to a few days before the debate, if I am not mistaken, had been the Colonial Secretary. He made a speech on that occasion, and the audience whom he addressed consisted of the Lord Chancellor, or the occupant of the Woolsack, one member of the Treasury Bench, and one member of the Opposition—Lord Strabolgi. Lord Harlech is comparatively young in years, but he is an old Parliamentary hand and therefore the discouraging opening of his career in this House probably did not affect him as much as it would have affected another person. On a more sensitive person, for instance, a young Peer, it might have exercised such a discouraging effect as to quench every desire he ever had to establish a reputation in Parliament. I would almost go so far as to describe occurrences of this kind as discreditable. The late Mr. Walter Bagehot, the well-known economist and writer, once said that if you had an exaggerated opinion of the value of the House of Lords, the cure for it was to come and watch its sittings. If any unprejudiced individual had come to the House on that particular occasion, he would not have conceived a very high opinion of this assembly, and if he had been an inhabitant of Jamaica he would probably have been extremely disgusted.

The reason is that after a certain period here all interest in debates, or nearly all, vanishes. I, like other people, have not infrequently addressed a similar audience, a very select audience composed of the occupant of the Woolsack, the Clerks at the Table, and perhaps one solitary Minister, and I always find myself asking unwittingly the same question: why am I taking part in this solemn farce? It is perfectly obvious that nobody wants to hear what I say. They are not here; there is nobody to convert, there is nobody to oppose; and possibly the Minister who replies knows nothing whatever about the question, and merely reads out an answer which has been supplied to him. One thing is perfectly certain, and that is that not one person in a thousand, or so far as that goes not one in a hundred thousand, or even a million, would ever know that a debate had taken place at all. I repeat, that I am always asking myself this question, and feeling what a fool I am, I do not say for wasting my time, because my time is not of value, but to do it at all, and I expect there must be a good many other people who feel the same thing.

In former days one did not suffer this humiliation, because in the far off days of which I am speaking the Press, with extreme conscientiousness, used solemnly to report everything which took place in Parliament. That went on for a considerable time, until Lord Northcliffe appeared on the scene, and Lord Northcliffe, whose greatness I personally have never been able to appreciate, delivered the death blow to this system. He realised the fact that the majority of readers, or the majority of his readers, did not want to read Parliamentary de- bates but rubbish, and so he substituted for Parliamentary debates, however valuable they might be, news of a sensational character, eked out by pictures representing the domestic life of criminals and of film performers and actors and actresses, and of everybody who possessed that intangible value which is called news value. Whether that was good for the nation or not I will not presume to say, but he successfully killed the real reporting of Parliamentary proceedings. If your Lordships study the newspapers you will find that many of them practically ignore Parliament altogether. There are very few papers, except The Times, who print any Parliamentary report at all worth considering, and even then, if you read them with attention, you will realise that nearly the whole of the space is given up to what takes place early in the day; what takes place later is omitted or cut down to very small limits. I have constantly heard admirable speeches made by noble Lords, not a word of which has appeared in the newspapers.

It is a very regrettable state of things, but likely to continue. It obviously results from the fact that time is not sufficient. After all, what is eight hours among 800 members. It is true that only a small proportion of the 800 members attend, but eight hours is a mere trifle. One or two noble Lords I can think of, industrious Lords, who have oratorical powers, such as the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, and the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, could perfectly well consume a ration of eight hours themselves, without assistance from anybody else. I think it is obvious that the unsatisfactory condition that I have described—the deserted House after a certain hour, and the absolute lack of attention with which speeches made after a certain hour are treated—is certainly an unfortunate circumstance. It is due largely to the fact, in my opinion, that we meet too late, and the reason we do not meet before half past four is that the Law Lords have the joint use of this Chamber.

I should have thought it might have been possible to have arrangements by which the Chamber could be vacated at an early hour, and we could, if necessary, obtain possession of it. I do not suggest that it would be necessary for us to meet every day at three o'clock, or anything like it, but it does seem that half past four is a very late hour at which to start important debates, and yet that is what we do every day, except on Wednesday, when the Law Lords do not sit. Some of the Law Lords have been good enough to write to me and express their views on the subject, and I find that their objections are by no means of a personal character at all. They do not wish to stand upon their dignity, but they object to my proposal on traditional and constitutional grounds. I am assured that the objections to the proposals which I have ventured to indicate, are that they are considered by a large portion of the public as being derogatory to the dignity of the Law Lords. I hope to convince your Lordships' House that that is an entirely erroneous view, and that what I propose would not only add to the convenience of the Law Lords but make their position even more dignified than it is at the present moment.

Everyone knows that dictators and despotic monarchs have a habit, when receiving anybody, of establishing themselves in enormous halls, where they receive suppliants or embassies, as the case may be, and as the individual makes his way up the huge hall he obviously becomes more and more embarrassed, until he finally arrives at the awful presence little more than a nervous wreck. That is the custom practised, for instance, by Signor Mussolini; I think occasionally it was employed by the late Emperor of Germany; and from what I saw I think the late Lord Kitchener was also in the habit occasionally of using it. When it comes to using this Chamber there is no question of terrifying anybody. Indeed it seems to me that every step is taken to minimise the importance of the occasion as much as possible. There is nothing in this Chamber in the early morning, especially of autumn or early winter, to have that effect. It is dark, uncomfortable, and so cold occasionally that noble Lords have to protect themselves with rugs from the rigour of the atmosphere. Every step seems to be taken to make people feel that it is an ordinary occurrence of no particular importance. There is a complete absence of what I might call ceremonial. The Throne is covered, the Woolsack is covered, the Mace is invisible, so far as I know; and the only signs of ceremonial are that the Lord Chancellor himself wears his official costume and counsel wear wigs.

But as for the arrangements, they are of such extreme simplicity that they could not possibly, alarm anyone. The Lord Chancellor sits at a table flanked by two of his learned colleagues. The other two, for whom there is no room at the table, are accommodated with a sort of miniature tea table, which does not even possess a drawer—the kind of thing which you would see outside a second-rate cafe in Paris. There is no place for their papers, no convenience of any kind whatever. As for the persons interested in the cases which come before the Court, they are in a worse case. They are all herded together in a place which I believe is known as the "pig pen"—that is the professional term for this place. Here they are all herded together, and room has to be found for an immense quantity of papers, books and so forth somehow or other. There is a temporary stage which has to be removed, and the process of shifting the scene and preparing it for our deliberations takes something like twenty minutes.

Well, there is nothing very impressive about that, and if an ordinary spectator were to be present I cannot help thinking that he would say to himself: "There must have been some strange occurrence of which I have not heard; there must have been either some convulsion of nature, or a fire or deluge or something of the kind, and here these eminent men sitting here are making the best of it"—a kind of legal Swiss Family Robinson, if I may say so. That is the sort of impression which might be conveyed to the ordinary spectator. The other persons who take an interest in the matter must come away not feeling in any sense awed by the proceedings, but filled with corn— passion for these eminent men who have to do their work under such very discouraging circumstances.

The alternatives which I suggest are perfectly simple. There are several Committee rooms in this House which are admirably adapted for the purpose. They were constructed to serve as Courts, whereas this Chamber was constructed not to serve as a Court but to serve as a place in which to hold debates. There is, for instance, the Moses Room, but I believe that is reserved for the exclusive use of my noble friend beside me, Lord Onslow. There is the robing room, which is admirably suited for the purpose, and there is an excellent Committee room at the west end of the Library, and another one at the east end. There cannot be any possible objection to the use of those rooms, because the robing room and the Committee room at the west end of the Library are being used by people who have got no claim to them at all. They have no official standing. One of them is used by the Automobile Club, or something of the kind, and the other by unofficial Peers. They have not got any real right to these chambers at all. That being so, there should not be any possible objection to their being used by the Court. I said that as far as the Law Lords themselves are concerned they do not look upon it as a personal question at all, but it is the popular belief that their dignity would suffer if they were moved from here. I do not think their dignity would suffer in the least, and their comfort would certainly be improved.

As regards the objections, I merely observe this. One reason why I should like to see the legal sittings held elsewhere may sound a very fanciful one, but at the same time I think there is something in it. It may be remembered that not so very many years ago this House was very much prejudiced by an agitation in the country conducted by political opponents over the decision given in the Taff Vale case, and it was sedulously represented that this decision was due to the vote of persons like myself and those who sit around me. Well of course that is only pure ignorance, but as a matter of fact it is ignorance which is still prevalent, and if the suggestion were carried out that the Law Lords should sit somewhere else then this absurd suspicion would die out altogether. The other objections, with which I do not propose to deal myself—I leave them for other people to deal with—are the constitutional objections. I admit it sounds grotesque that I should doubt the correctness of view of the Law Lords, but I have never been able to see that the Supreme Court of Appeal and the House of Lords are not two separate bodies. No doubt I shall be told that I am grossly and entirely wrong, but I maintain that that is the case, because if there really was only one body then I should have a right to sit upon the tribunal.

Then there is the difficulty of the House acting in two capacities, and not only that, but there is the difficulty of the Lord. Chancellor being in two places at once, Well, I should be the last person to wish to put any additional work upon the Lord Chancellor, because I believe him to be about the most hard worked man in the whole country. But I do not think this arrangement would involve any tax upon his exertions. There is one more objection with which I will deal very shortly, and that is the objection of my noble friend beside me, Lord Onslow, that if the House met earlier in the day it would seriously impede the work of the Private Bill Committees. In my day I have done a good deal of Private Bill Committee work, and my experience was that as soon as the sitting was finished everybody went away, and did not come back to the House at all. I expect that the habits of Peers are very much the same now as they were in those days. After all, the number of Peers engaged on Committee work is very small, and if a Peer sitting on a Committee is very anxious to take part in an important debate it seems to be quite inconceivable that it should not be possible to arrange for his attendance without much difficulty. I do not think I need detain your Lordships any longer, but I desire to point out that I am not asking the House to adopt any definite course, I am merely suggesting that it would be a good plan to appoint a Committee to consider this, together with other questions. I observe a disposition on the part of noble Lords to find fault with our arrangements, and it therefore seems to me that there would be no harm in setting up a Committee, which is very easily done, and it might result in certain changes which would give satisfaction all round.


My Lords, I cannot help feeling that your Lordships will have observed the noble Lord's Question on the Order Paper with a certain degree of astonishment. So far as I know the proposal is an entirely novel one, and we do not as a rule look for very novel proposals from that side of the House. It is no doubt contrary to the conservative instinct, which is shared by many people, quite irrespective of their general political views or of the Bench on which they happen to sit. I remember that it always used to be said —probably with a great deal of truth—that any departure from precedent or abandonment of ancient traditions and customs was far more repugnant to Mr. Gladstone than it was to the late Lord Salisbury. Therefore I have no hesitation in admitting that at first I shared that astonishment at the noble Lord's Question. But afterwards I reflected, remembering the countless brilliant interventions in debate which the noble Lord has made during the forty years he has sat in your Lordships' House, that it was quite impossible that he could suggest anything incompatible with the dignity and efficiency of the debates in your Lordships' House.

He has developed his argument on the ground, in the first instance, that the judicial sittings of your Lordships' House are not very impressive in themselves. I am bound to say that if a distinguished foreigner paying a visit to England were told that on no account ought he to miss visiting your Lordships' House sitting as the Final Court of Appeal in the country —the Court which any day may pass a final decision affecting the careers and fortunes of hundreds of thousands of His Majesty's subjects—and if he came and attended a sitting of the House as described by the noble Lord opposite, he might go away with a certain feeling of disappointment. I think he would be more impressed by the majesty of British justice if he were to attend at an ordinary Court of Law presided over by a puisne judge. Therefore, so far as any question of pageantry or of loss of apparent dignity in judicial sittings of your Lordships' House is concerned, I do not think there would be any great sacrifice of either.

So far as the constitutional objection is concerned, there are occasional—exceedingly rare—sittings of your Lordships' House for the purpose of the trial of some Peer for felony. I have not attempted to look up precedents, but I have no doubt that in the reign of the Tudors, if such a trial had taken place, it would have taken place in the actual Chamber, the House of Lords of that day, when the total Peerage was far short of the number of one hundred and therefore undoubtedly room could have been found. Some of your Lordships will remember that if a trial of such a kind were now to take place—and I sincerely hope there will not be another—it would not take place here, but in a different part of this building. Therefore, if there were any constitutional objection to the House in its judicial capacity sitting in some other part of the Palace of Westminster, I should have thought such an objection would have applied even more to the trial of a Peer for felony.

What reasonable and dignified accommodation can be found for the House sitting in that capacity elsewhere I have not attempted to examine. The noble Lord opposite suggested some of the Committee rooms, but there are other precincts within the walls of this Palace which I conceive might be adapted to the purpose. That, of course, is one side of the question, and it is one which was particularly dwelt on by the noble Lord opposite. A further objection of a practical sort which has been often taken to such a proposal is that a large and most important part of your Lordships' business is conducted in the Committee rooms upstairs and that this work according to custom ceases when your Lordships' House meets. That appears to be a difficulty which could be got over. I think the number of noble Lords engaged in Committees upstairs who would feel themselves compelled to be in their places here at the opening of a debate—half an hour or three-quarters of an hour after their ordinary rising time—would be very small, and I cannot think that a certain overlapping of these two functions need in itself interfere with the proposal if it should be considered desirable in other respects.

The noble Lord, Lord Newton, spoke of the changes which have taken place during his long experience in the House. What he said was perfectly true, and I think it may safely be assumed that there is no probability of its becoming a frequent custom of your Lordships' House to sit after dinner. He also mentioned the almost abject apologies which noble Lords are accustomed to make, if they rise in their places after seven o'clock, for speaking at so late an hour and interfering with the private lives of members of your Lordships' House. It is quite true that the practice, which has now apparently become an established custom, of only sitting effectively for about two hours or two and a half hours, is not likely to be altered. Therefore I cannot see that there would be any serious difficulty in making a practice of meeting at three o'clock instead of a quarter past four. We met at three yesterday. and I believe we are going meet at three to-morrow, and it would not, I think, in all the circumstances be a change detrimental to the dignity of your Lordships' House, provided, of course, that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack and his colleagues do not believe that their work would be seriously interfered with and the dignity of the House in that capacity would be seriously impaired by the change in their sittings. It does seem to me that the case is one which might very fairly be inquired into by His Majesty's Government, whether by the appointment of a Committee or in some other way.

I think that the noble Lord has done a service by raising the matter in this manner, because I feel, and have felt for some time, that the debates in your Lordships' House—the quality of which I venture to think has in no way deteriorated but rather the contrary during all the years I have been here—surely do not receive the proper degree of public attention which I am quite certain they deserve. And I am not sure that the debates in another place are altogether adequately reported. As the noble Lord, Lord Newton, has pointed out, the custom of meeting the public demand by picturesque descriptions rather than by verbal repetition of what has actually passed has, I am afraid, become ingrained in the public mind, and therefore much the same grievance could be expressed in another place except on the occasions, which possibly happen oftener there than here, where some sensational incident occurs which can be celebrated by headlines and receive considerable notice in the Press. As I say, there does seem to me to be a fair case for inquiry into the proposition which the noble Lord has put before us, and I trust His Majesty's Government will not altogether pour cold water upon it.


My Lords, I wish to touch upon one aspect only of the case which has been referred to by both noble Lords who have already addressed your Lordships, and that is the question of the interference which any alteration in our time of meeting might make in the business of our Private Bill Committees. The noble Marquess opposite has said, and if I may say so with great respect, very truly, that the business done in our Private Bill Committees is as important as, if not more important than, much of the other business done in your Lordships' House, and I feel certain none of your Lordships would wish to interfere in any way with the efficiency of those tribunals. Both my noble friends who have spoken have admitted that to a certain extent, but are disposed to think that the difficulties might be overcome.

The noble Marquess said he thought that it would be unlikely that many noble Lords would wish to attend the beginning of a debate, which was expected to be of some length, if the House were to meet at three o'clock; but I would call the noble Marquess's attention and the attention of your Lordships to the difficulty that arises when your Lordships' House is in Committee or is considering an important Bill on the Report stage. We are all aware that a Division is apt to take place quite early in the sitting, perhaps on the first Amendment, and then that is followed by others. In such circumstances, if a large number of noble Lords were engaged elsewhere this might inconvenience your Lordships' House or it might be a serious handicap to the Committees upstairs. I do not think that meeting at three o'clock would matter very much at this time of the year, because the Committees are not sitting, but from, say, the beginning of March to the end of May or the middle of June there are sometimes in fact several Committees sitting at once, and five Peers are occupied in each Committee. My noble friend said that there was not a large number of your Lordships who take part in Committees. I am glad to say that is perhaps a slight exaggeration (or shall I say diminution), because I rejoice to think that a very considerable proportion of the regular attendants in your Lordships' House give their time and great abilities to the consideration of Private Bills in Committee.

Now supposing we were to meet at three o'clock. My noble friend said he would not suggest that we should do so every day, but I think if your Lordships were to adopt the proposal which he has put before you, and with the judicial sittings of the House taking place elsewhere, meetings at three o'clock would take place considerably more frequently than they do at present. Supposing we had three or four important Private Bill Committees sitting during a week in which your Lordships were to meet every day at three o'clock. The Private Bill Committees as a rule sit for some time, but they do try to get through the work of each Committee in a week. If this House were to meet at three, this difficulty would arise. The Committeesmeet at eleven o'clock and they sit as a rule now till half past one. They then adjourn till half past two, and sit on from then till four o'clock. If the House met at three, it would hardly be worth while for a Committee to reassemble at half past two and sit until three o'clock. You might therefore lose three afternoons a week, which would mean considerable expense for the parties and for the local authorities who come here to argue their cases before your Lordships' Committees. A Committee's proceedings might in consequence not be finished in one week and might have to go over until the following week. That would mean that local government officials and others would have to spend a week in London, go back to their own parts of the country for two or three days, and then incur further railway expense in coming back to attend at the Committee's sittings in the following week. I think that the difficulty would be more considerable than has been adumbrated by the two noble Lords who have spoken.

I should certainly not oppose, if your Lordships desired it, a careful inquiry by Committee or otherwise into the proposal of my noble friend. I am sure we must all be grateful to him for raising this matter, because any question in relation to procedure is very deserving of consideration. I should not in the least oppose reference of this suggestion to a Committee, but I would like your Lordships to remember that difficulty which occurred to my mind. Perhaps in the position in which your Lordships have done me the honour to place me I may rather exaggerate that point, but I do urge upon your Lordships that nothing should be done in any way to interfere with the efficiency of Committees of your Lordships' House upstairs, or in any way to put additional burdens, either of trouble or expense, upon those who come to argue their cases before those Committees. There is one other small matter, and that is the question of accommodation. My noble friend told your Lordships that there are always Committee rooms available, but that they are now being used by those who have no immediate right to them. It does, however, sometimes happen in the busiest time of the year that all Committee rooms are occupied by Committees of your Lordships' House. I do not want to stress that point because that particular difficulty could be got over. My doubts about the merits of the proposal are concentrated on the difficulties which would arise in connection with Private Bill Committees.


My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to say a word or two on this matter in respect of which I think I can say that I voice the opinion of all my colleagues who sit as Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. Nobody would have suspected for a moment, and nobody does suspect, that the noble Lord in making this proposal had any feelings in the least derogatory towards the Lords of Appeal. It was quite unnecessary for him to disclaim that, as he has so courteously done both in public and in private letters. On the other hand, I may assure your Lordships that the Lords of Appeal have no feelings in this matter in respect of their own personal dignity. You can put us in any island that you choose, like the Swiss Family Robinson. We are not thinking of ourselves, but I would say with great respect that your Lordships have to consider the dignity and position of the House of Lords.

May I remind your Lordships of something, Which most of your Lordships know very well, of the position of the House of Lords in judicial matters? From time immemorial it has been the highest Court of Law in the country. It exercises original jurisdiction over its own members, and of course it sits as a House of Lords. It exercises jurisdiction, in the past very important jurisdiction—and though it is now said to be obsolete I am not quite so sure of that—in matters of impeachment. It also exercises the power of being the Supreme Court of Appeal in this country. In the early days all the members of the House of Lords felt qualified to take part in deciding points of law, and there are cases in the hooks, in the eighteenth century I think, in which there were seventeen Peers on one side and twenty-three on the other, including some Bishops, and no doubt they arrived at a satisfactory conclusion. But for a long time the lay Peers have taken no part in a decision, and there was advice tendered to them nearly eighty years ago from which time no lay Peer has in fact taken part in the discussions on a judicial matter. In 1873 a Bill was passed which deprived the House of Lords altogether of its power to hear appeals, but sections of the Act of 1873 did not come into force and what I venture to think were wiser and better counsels prevailed. In 1876 there was passed an Act of Parliament which restored to the House of Lords its power to hear appeals. It created the right of appeal, and the right of appeal is to the House of Lords and to no other body.

With great respect to the two noble Lords who have addressed your Lordships rather upon the footing that civil appeals could be conducted by the Law Lords as though they were a Committee of your Lordships' House, that view is quite untenable. It is impossible for any appeal to be heard or to have any validity unless it is heard by the House of Lords. I venture to submit, and I do not think this admits of doubt, that the House of Lords cannot sit in two places at the same time and cannot perform two different functions at the same time. It might be convenient in a stress of business if your Lordships were to adjourn half to the Royal Gallery and the other half to sit here, and if one half debated upon one Bill and the other half contemporaneously debated upon another Bill. But both those proceedings, with great respect, would be entirely invalid and illegal. There is only one House of Lords and it can only do one thing at a time. Therefore the suggestion that you can have the Law Lords sitting at one time, and the House of Lords sitting here at the same time, so that there would be an overlap, is one which I venture to think your Lordships will find is quite impossible in law. If you want to make this change you will have to do it by Act of Parliament. I wonder how many of your Lordships are really prepared to agree that you should leave it to a Committee to consider whether for the purpose of making the alterations suggested you should propose an Act of Parliament and send it down to the House of Commons to consider whether this vast change should be made.

It is quite true that a stranger who came to this country to survey the operations of the highest tribunal in the land might not think that the surroundings were those of the dignity, importance and grandeur that perhaps he might find in his own country. He would be very much more impressed if he went to the Court of Appeal. I am not sure that he might not be more impressed if he sat in some Courts of Quarter Sessions. But the dignity and grandeur of this Court are not derived from its external surroundings. They are derived from its long history and the position which the House of Lords has held in the legal history of this country. Though it is quite true that it is possible to say that we are not very impressive when there are only five of us—the noble Lord's picture was not quite accurate, but nevertheless it was accurate enough for the purpose—there is an element of grandeur when you think of the tradition that has obtained for three or four hundred years, and that it is the House of Lords sitting in performance of its traditional functions in exactly the same way as they have been performed for a great number of years. I think that does something to maintain (shall I say?) the grandeur of the House. In fact, unless we could do our job to the satisfaction of the country it would be no good surrounding us with any trappings; we should have to disappear. I certainly am at a loss to think that we should be any more dignified if we were put in one of the Committee rooms. I do not think, with all due respect to your Lordships who sit on Committees, that sitting in a Committee room we are any more impressive than we are sitting here. That, however, is of course a matter of taste.

That is the Constitutional, the legal position: you cannot make this change at all unless you have an Act of Parliament. But for what are you going to make the change? What is the advantage? What is the object to be gained? During the course of my time in this House, in ordinary times the House has sat on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Of those days the Law Lords are not sitting performing judicial functions at all on Wednesdays, and therefore there are two days in the week on which it is suggested that you should sit at three instead of four—that is to say, there are two hours which can be gained at the beginning of the day. The noble Lord seems to take it for granted that there is a terminus ad quem which is absolutely fixed, which is the dinner-hour of the Lords; but even on those days that time is not always reached.

I should like to point out that the pressure which comes upon your Lordships' House generally comes in the month of July, at the end of the Session. In the month of July, as a general rule, the House does not sit for judicial business, as the services of the Law Lords are required elsewhere, at the Privy Council. For the last fortnight or so there have been no judicial sittings at all, but I do not know whether your Lordships have suffered any particular advantages or have been saved from much inconvenience. You have not altered your hours very much: with great respect, you have sat at three, and on Monday you rose at about half past six. Is there much difference between sitting at three and rising at half past six, and sitting at four and rising at seven? You can maintain even then the traditional terminus ad quem. With great respect, there is no such inconvenience as is suggested which would be sufficient to justify what I cannot help thinking would be a very dangerous innovation, to try to turn the House of Lords in its judicial capacity into a Committee, or a separate Court, or a separate body, and the result might be changes that your Lordships would be the very last to support. For these reasons I cannot help suggesting to your Lordships that there is no case for further inquiry, and I hope it will not be pursued.


My Lords, all your Lordships will always hear with the utmost respect and attention the words of Lord Atkin on a legal subject. Ai the same time I venture to think that this is a matter on which you cannot be entirely guided by legal opinion, any more than in other matters we might be entirely influenced by ecclesiastical opinion. It is a matter for the whole House, legal and lay. I think the general answer to what Lord Atkin has put forward is this. We have a Constitution that is not static but is fluid, and if it can be shown that an existing practice has grave inconvenience, there is nothing derogatory to precedent in altering it. Lord Atkin suggested that what had passed from remote antiquity should be maintained now. But I think he forgets that in one way or another there have been a good many changes in the practice of this House.

I can quite imagine the most eloquent speech being made in the eighteenth cen- tury as to the value of impeachment. The speaker would have said that the supreme tribunal of the House of Lords must hear charges made against any distinguished public servant, and he would have used exactly the same arguments that Lord Atkin has used to-day. In practice, when it came to what followed in the impeachment of Warren Hastings and the impeachment of Lord Melville, it was seen quite plainly that the whole procedure was an entire anachronism; it was not only inconvenient but unjust, and it was tacitly abandoned. When he spoke of relegation to a Committee, if you look at the facts and not the words, that is exactly what has happened already. If I remember aright, somewhere about the year 1843 a question was brought up to this House to quash the conviction of Daniel O'Connell in Ireland. Certain strong partisans wished to take part, and I believe that nothing could have prevented them, but of course the strongest pressure was exercised against them and they did not pursue the matter. Since then there has been no question, except for a trial of one of their own number, of the whole House acting judicially. Therefore, as I say, there has always been a process of change, and it is impossible as it were to freeze the practice at any particular moment.

I submit that there is really grave inconvenience in the present practice. There is inconvenience to the business of your Lordships' House, as has been pointed out; and it is not only inconvenience to your Lordships' House, but there is also real inconvenience, as I have heard it very strongly put, to counsel arid to the parties, herded together in that small place, the counsel right up against one another, the parties in the greatest inconvenience, with very scant opportunity for making notes or for consultation without the other side hearing all that passes. Altogether there is the greatest practical inconvenience. I was very much struck one day by the fact that on a rare occasion when a presumptive—and indeed I think a convicted—murderer was brought up here on a point of law to have his case argued, there was no room for him in the Court at all and he had to sit in the Public Gallery between two benevolent policemen.


In the Distinguished Strangers' Gallery.


I think not. He was in the Public Gallery, in my recollection; but undoubtedly he was a distinguished and unusual stranger. The Lord Chairman has spoken of certain inconvenience which would be caused to the Committee work of your Lordships' House. Of course, that inconvenience is also felt in the House of Commons, where often it is necessary for Committees to sit at the same time as the whole body of the House. I venture to suggest that that objection is not insuperable, and it is just one of the things that the Committee ought to discuss. If, indeed, they find that the change suggested cannot be made without legislation, and they say so, then after all, the Appellate jurisdiction Act, 1876, is by no means sacrosanct, and what was done on that occasion might well be revised. Therefore I trust that your Lordships will appoint this Committee.

But I am bound to say, for my own part, that I go somewhat further, and I suggest that Lord Atkin and all his noble and learned brethren should cease and determine as regards their judicial function in this House and should have their life and being in an enlarged and glorified Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. There is more than inconvenience in this House having a judicial function at all; there is often great mischief. Lord Newton has referred to the Taff Vale decision. That is not the only one; there was Allen versus Flood; and those two decisions exposed your Lordships' House as an institution generally not only to uninformed criticism but also to the grossest travesties. This was repeated to some degree in 1922, when a decision was arrived at on the liabilities of tenants in Scotland. That had occurred a few weeks before a General Election and in the same way was used unfairly but with most devastating effect in Scotland. There would be none of these things if the jurisdiction were transferred to the Privy Council.

So far as I remember from the writings of my very good but very much senior friend, Sir William Anson, the jurisdiction of the King in Council is the most ancient of all and existed before the Common Law Courts were set up, and when they were set up it was found that they could not function in many cases owing to the intimidation of powerful people. A remedy had to be found and a remedy was found by the doctrine that the King had residual jurisdiction in all matters of law and his Council could decide matters quite apart from the jurisdiction of the Courts. It is quite true that it degenerated later into Star Chamber procedure and was abolished so far as home jurisdiction is concerned until 1833. In 1833 it was consolidated as regards appeals from overseas, and also a section was added to it to the effect that the Government might remit to the Privy Council any matter on which they were in doubt for their decision. And so the Privy Council does not exist only as a Court for appeals from overseas but has separate jurisdiction of its own, and I suggest that that jurisdiction should be added to so as to take the position of the Supreme Court of Appeal. There is defence for it in antiquity and defence for it in expediency, and I trust that sooner or later that will be carried into effect. I will not enter into the question of personnel because all that could of course be argued if the proposal took a more concrete form. At present, however, the suggestion is much more humble, to set up a Committee to inquire into a practice which undoubtedly has inconvenience for your Lordships' House. When that Committee has reported I believe your Lordships will be impelled to take some further action in the matter.


My Lords, the conditions under which we try to do our work in this House are a matter of interest to all your Lordships, and I personally very much sympathise with the noble Lord who introduced this Motion, in what he has borne in this rather depressing wilderness for a period of forty years. He has had to listen to a continued series of depressing Ministerial statements, without any effective criticism. I only wish to say that whatever the faults of this House may be as a debating Chamber, they will not be removed by meeting an hour earlier or sitting an hour later. That is not the real trouble. If the debates in this House have depressed so experienced a member as the noble Lord, what must they mean to young new-corners, who very quickly decide never to come again?

The real way in which to make the debates of this House more alive, to ensure an increase in interest, to bring a larger attendance of noble Lords to its sittings, is to have an increased Opposition, and until you get an increased Opposition here the question of hours becomes a mere inferior consideration. I do not intend to suggest that the present Opposition, either above the gangway or on these Benches, is inadequate. The arguments that we produce ought to move a heart of stone, but they do not move in the least degree the members of His Majesty's Government. If we had a largely increased Opposition, at least they would be compelled to sit up and take notice of the fact that there was an Opposition, and the whole temper of your Lordships' House would be altered, interest in it would be increased, and I think it would quickly be proved that the question of hours was of no importance at all.


My Lords, you have been discussing this Motion from the point of view of the convenience of hours and so on. Looking back at my experience when at the Office of Works, there is one other point that I should like to mention. On several occasions I was approached, both by learned counsel and by clients interested in the House of Lords, asking me whether I could not make some more convenient and comfortable arrangements than those which now obtain during the judicial sittings of the House. I believe that as long as certain of the furniture is practically irremovable, and as long as the House is designed in its present layout, it is quite impossible to make the judicial sittings of this House either dignified or convenient, and I am convinced that a Committee of Inquiry is desirable, if only to go into that question.

As long as the judicial sittings take place in this Chamber there will not only be confusion in the actual judicial sittings —there will continue to be confusion in the public mind, all up and down the country, in spite of what Lord Atkin says, between the House of Lords acting in its judicial capacity and the House of Lords acting as a legislative assembly. Over and over again one has been called upon to explain a decision of the Law Lords, in which an overwhelming majority of the House is not allowed to take any part, and I am convinced that sooner or later it will be necessary to define in words, quite clearly, the distinction between the judicial functions of this House and the functions of this House as a whole, just as in practice the Committee of the Privy Council which is known as the Cabinet is clearly defined and known, because it is called the Cabinet, as distinct from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The noble Lord who spoke last was quite right in saying that we have not got a static Constitution, and I am convinced that that is one of the things which will have to be examined sooner or later, if only from the political point of view.

There is one other point on which I would like to say one word, and that is in connection with the business of Private Bill Committees upstairs. I have not yet served on Private Bill Committees in your Lordships' House, but for many years I sat as a member, and as Chairman, of Private Bill Committees in the other House, both before the War and after the War before I was a Minister. There we had no rigid system, and frequently I remember we used to meet, when it was for the convenience of counsel or clients, after luncheon as well as before luncheon. Admittedly there is this distinction: in another place up till about four o'clock Questions are being taken, whereas here you may be proceeding at once to deal with legislation. In another place when there were afternoon sittings of Private Bill Committees upstairs all one did was to miss Questions, and any member of a Private Bill Committee who had a Question clown could always get another member to ask it for him. I appreciate that with our procedure it is slightly more difficult here, but I do think that is not a difficulty which should stand in the way of a reform that may be required under other heads.

Probably the noble and learned Lord, Lord Atkin, is right and that nothing can be done in this matter without legislation, and it is quite obvious that we should not indulge in legislation affecting the arcana of the country—because we are doing that if we do anything to separate the Law Lords further from the lay Lords—without the most careful inquiry, and I think an inquiry is called for. Apropos of the arcana, I remember at the time of the Silver Jubilee making the arrangements as First Commissioner of Works for the great ceremony in Westminster Hall, arid we went back to the very origins of Parliament for the early precedents. I remember then discussing as to whether the Judges had or had not the right to come and sit in Westminster Hall. No absolute decision was given, but at any rate the whole of the Court of King's Bench were invited, and they came to Westminster Hall, they sat in Westminster Hall just as they did in the Parliaments of Plantaganet times. Admittedly I was given to understand that they had not so sat in your Lordships' House since Parliament was split into Lords and Commons. In the early days of Parliament the whole of the King's Justices were in the Parliament of those days, when no doubt the original jurisdiction arose. As those matters and anything touching the final Court of Appeal would be bound to come up, they would require careful inquiry. But I am abundantly satisfied that reform is needed in the physical surroundings and the physical arrangements made for the meetings of the House of Lords sitting in a judicial capacity.


My Lords, I had not meant to rise to-day, and on this particular subject I feel that I should not, but as there are two hours before your Lordships I feel I might rise for two minutes. The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Newton, has the intention of allowing your Lordships to meet earlier. Many of us who have succeeded to Peerages in this House are also professional men and are unable to come until about five or six o'clock. It seems to me extremely unfair that we should be put in a difficulty, because many of us feel it is our duty to be here, and if the House meets earlier we cannot be here. That is a point I feel very strongly about, because many of us can go without our dinner, or we can dine in the excellent dining room here, but if we are unable to work we may also be in the poorhouse as well as in your Lordships' House. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, referred, as did the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, to the difficulty that if they spoke late they were not reported. I am by profession a journalist, and I can promise your Lordships that if you say anything after six or seven o'clock, or even up to two o'clock in the morning, if it is worth reporting it is reported. Unluckily it always seems to be the glamorous film stars who say the sensational last word. Therefore speeches made at eleven o'clock at night instead of four o'clock in the afternoon have far more chance of being reported, especially in these days when the competition for the latest news is so great.


My Lords, the noble Lord who asked this Question is my oldest friend in your Lordships' House. I have known him for more than forty years; in that time I have travelled over a good part of Asia and Europe in his company, and I am sure he will not be offended if I refer to him as a very adventurous spirit. He is also an iconoclast. Forty years ago he was what might be called a diehard Tory, but during the time that he has taken to move across the political heavens—I hope not because of his association with me—he has developed a strong Radical streak. I can remember on one occasion being very nearly put in prison in Poland because I had the misfortune to accompany the noble Lord, whose family name differed at that time from the name of his father, and under the old Russian regimé that was quite sufficient to put you in prison. On another occasion I was very nearly buried under the snows of Lebanon because the noble Lord insisted on going on when we were told it was quite impossible to do so because of the inclemency of the weather. And on a third occasion I nearly lost my life when being lowered down from the top of a Greek monastery in a basket because he was not willing to go down by the steps that were provided. Your Lordships will understand after this that I have some reason for questioning the motives of my noble friend when he brings forward this Motion. He has always had, and I am sure he still has, the very greatest contempt for what he calls "mandarins," and I am pretty certain that the noble Lords who represent your Lordships' House in a judicial capacity are in his opinion mandarins.

I wish however to say a word from the historical angle. I do not claim to be a historian, but I do take an interest in this question. This Court is probably the oldest existing Court in the whole world. I doubt if the Papal Curia is older. It is the direct descendant not only of the Great Council but even of the Witenagemot, and it has sat in approximately the same place for nearly a thousand years: the Painted Chamber of the days of Edward the Confessor stood where the Lords' Lobby now is. I think it is an ignoble thing to suggest that the highest Court of Appeal in this country should now be ejected from this historic Chamber in order to meet some very minor questions of convenience. As regards the interior arrangements, I should be quite willing to leave any modifications of them, not to a Committee, but to the noble Lord opposite who has just spoken, who, I am sure, with his knowledge, his taste and his accommodating manner, could arrange what is necessary to be done. I was very much impressed by the words of my noble friend Lord Rankeillour because they fitted in so exactly with what my noble friend Lord Atkin had said. He said that directly you begin to tinker with this sort of question you are going to get very much more important questions raised, and no sooner had he sat down than the noble Lord opposite adumbrated two or three sweeping Acts of Parliament that would remove altogether the judicial powers that your Lordships possess and lodge them in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

My noble friend who asked the Question was not quite correct in some of his facts. I do not want to underline them, and I refer to them only because it rather convinced me that he has not been a very constant attendant at this House during its judicial sittings. May I tell him that the Woolsack is not covered up, that the Mace is in the House, and that the Throne is covered up as it is now' and as it always is except when the Sovereign is present or a Royal Commission is in progress? Some references have been made to the loss of dignity through counsel being penned together in the box at the end of the Chamber. Perhaps there is something in that, but it is surely a mistake to say that the "parties" are inconvenienced. As I understand it—I am not a lawyer—when an appeal is being heard the only people who have to be present are the counsel and the solicitors. It hardly ever occurs that witnesses have to be present. I was lunching to-day with a distinguished member of the other place, and he told me that one of the most impressive sights to his constituents and foreigners whom he has brought to see the Houses of Parliament has been a judicial sitting of your Lordships' House. I do not agree with the suggestion that the Law Lords are unsuitably housed, but as I said before, if my noble friend opposite, the former Secretary of State for the Colonies, would take the matter in hand I am sure he would arrange it to every- body's advantage. I hope my noble friend will not press any further to drive out the "mandarins" from this House should he receive a negative answer from the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack.


My Lords, I wish now on behalf of the Government to reply to the Question which the noble Lord has asked, and the Government observe that the matter on the Paper is only in the nature of a Question and that there is no Motion before the House. It may be worth while to call attention to what it is that Lord Newton asks. He asks His Majesty's Government whether there are any constitutional objections to conducting the judicial business of the House in one of the Committee rooms. Observe that it is "the judicial business of the House." The objection to that is in the nature of something constitutional—namely, that the House, as has already been said, cannot divide itself into two portions, and therefore it is impossible according to the Constitution as it now exists—which is the question we ate asked—to have the House of Lords sitting here in the capacity of the Legislature and another part of it sitting elsewhere (it matters not where) performing the judicial functions of the House.

It is quite true that an Act of Parliament, which can do anything, could very likely put an end to the present position and put an end, amongst other things, to the judicial functions of this House, but your Lordships will observe, as has already been pointed out by my noble and learned friend Lord Atkin, that that clearly requires legislation, and it is rather difficult to tell where that legislation will precisely lead you. As my noble and learned friend has pointed out, the matter turns largely on the provisions of the Appellate Jurisdiction Act, 1876, which have with me and which I am willing to show to any noble Lord who desires information. In my opinion it is quite clear from that Act that the Appeal Tribunal, both for hearing and deciding the appeals which are submitted to them, is the House of Lords. It has been pointed out, quite truly, that of recent years it has been the custom that only the Law Lords and the Lord Chancellor shall be entitled to vote on any question that arises of a strictly judicial kind, and in consequence of that very few of you' Lordships attend when some intricate question of law is being decided. I am old enough to remember quite well a time when one or two noble Lords did come into the House during the hearing of appeals, sit down on one of the Benches on which your Lordships are now sitting, and listen for an hour or so, perhaps in order to see that the judicial business was properly conducted. That practice, unfortunately, I have not seen followed for a good many years.

But it is the House of Lords that is determining these judicial questions, and according to the law as it now stands no other body can do it. If you proceed by promoting a measure to be passed by Parliament it is, I think, clear that as soon as the thing is really discussed, and the idea is that the House of Lords as a judicial body shall go to some other place —the Moses Room—and that the House of Lords as a legislative body shall continue to sit here, it will be pointed out at once that the other body is not the House of Lords at all because the House of Lords cannot be split into two. The question will then arise, who are the Judges who are to determine the judicial business which hitherto was determined by the House of Lords? Why should they be Lords at all? You may make them Life Peers or you may say they are to be ex-Lord Chancellors. But why? They are no longer going to be the House of Lords, and once you are going to make these changes I do not see why they should not be laymen who have no right to sit here at all. Moreover, if you are going to take that step and give the judicial business of this House to a lay body or, at any rate, to a body which is not the House of Lords, you are going a long step in the direction of severing from the House of Lords the whole of its judicial functions and atmosphere and all the Lords who hitherto have been here because they held some judicial distinction or, at any rate, have been selected for the position of Lords of Appeal.

I have heard it said in this House that some noble Lords do not like lawyers, and I have sometimes been tempted to share that view. But I would say this, that the House of Lords in much of the work that it has to do now is sadly in need of some judicial and legal experience, and I have bitterly regretted during the short time that I have occu- pied this place that there have not been more noble Lords who were able to speak on legal matters with just as much authority as myself, and who were present here to correct the views, which may be erroneous, that I have had to state to the House. The matters which come before your Lordships now are matters which undoubtedly, time after time, are connected with questions of a purely legal character. I need not mention the names of Bills. There have been half a dozen during the past week, and it would be disastrous in my humble opinion if your Lordships had to determine those questions, had to decide, for instance, on such matters as those raised by the Hire-Purchase Bill, without having anybody in the House not merely accustomed to reading Statutes but with years of experience in the Courts and accustomed to know how these things are dealt with and the sort of questions that constantly arise in relation to them. That, I think, with all respect to the noble Lord who asked the Question, is a matter of very great importance.

As soon as you begin to discuss the question whether the jurisdiction of the House of Lords in legal matters is going to come to an end, you at once start all sorts of other questions. You start the very large question to which the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, referred in relation to a new kind of judicial Committee of the Privy Council which is going to deal, presumably, with matters from all over the world as well as appeals from Scotland and England. That is a very, very large question indeed, and I must be allowed to point out that it is not raised by the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Newton. Another question that has been raised, and one not without some foundation as I know from having addressed many arguments beyond the Bar in this House in a legal capacity—namely, the question whether something might not be done to make the position of counsel addressing their Lordships a little more comfortable than it is now. That has nothing to do with this Question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and that, again, is a matter which might be considered very easily and probably without a Committee at all.

As to the precise Question that is raised by the noble Lord, Lord Newton—and if I may say so respectfully, I think he must be congratulated on having raised it—the answer is that His Majesty's Government think that there are vital and conclusive constitutional objections to the course which the noble Lord has suggested. On the other hand, that does not mean that there might not be an Act of Parliament, but for the moment His Majesty's Government do not consider the time is opportune for raising very serious questions involving, of course, the reform of this House in other respects which would be needed if the judicial functions of the House are to be put an end to. In those circumstances the Government do not think it is a proper moment for appointing a Committee which, so far as the present matter is concerned, would really have nothing to consider. For those reasons I venture to think the noble Lord will be content at present with the answer that has been given.