HL Deb 30 June 1938 vol 110 cc437-52

LORD RAGLAN rose to call attention to the arrangement of the business of the House, and to move That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the same. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the object of the Motion which I have placed upon the Paper is to call attention to a state of affairs which has arisen, not as a result of any neglect or act by any particular person, but as a result of changes which have taken place very gradually over a long period of years. In the time of your Lordships' grandfathers it was the custom for all, or nearly all, noble Lords to shut up their country houses on or about May 1 and to come up to London for three months. In those days the London season corresponded with the Session of Parliament, and noble Lords were able to combine business with pleasure and to achieve 100 per cent. of attendances at your Lordships' House with very little inconvenience.

But things are very different nowadays. There are a great many noble Lords who do not come up to London for the London season, and even if they do come up for the London season they can by so doing achieve not more than 50 per cent. attendance at this House. Nowadays the House sits nearly all the year round. In 1937 there were only two months, August and September, during which the House was not in Session and the House sat for thirty-four weeks. Unless my arithmetic is at fault, and I worked the thing out as carefully as I could, the average number of hours the House sat during each week was six. The result of this is that any Peer who lives in the country must, if he wishes to make 100 per cent. of attendances, come up to London thirty-four times; he must spend three whole days in London, and out of those three whole days he will on the average spend six hours in this House. It is clearly impossible for anybody living far from London to do anything of the kind, and what many noble Lords do is to come to London whenever it is convenient and hope that their visits may correspond with something of interest in this House. What they do, in fact, is to come down here and "take pot-luck."

It might be supposed that there would be some halfway house: that noble Lords might stay at home and come up when there is important business. This, however, they cannot do, and for two reasons. The first is that, although the House only sits for an average of six hours a week, the business is pretty evenly distributed throughout the year, and there was hardly one of the thirty-four weeks when there was not some business of importance in this House. The second reason is the shortness of notice. The usual procedure is that we get our Order Paper—at least I do—on Friday evening and I then have to decide whether it is worth my while to come up on the following Tuesday. I cannot claim to be a very busy man, but my engagements, such as they are, are fixed up long before that. Suppose that I am offered an engagement two months ahead, it is no use to say, "Oh, I can't do that, because I shall be occupied with the House of Lords"; because I have no idea whether the House will be sitting. But even the Order Paper we receive on Friday is not final. Only last month the Sea Fisheries Bill was put off at two days' notice to make way for the Coal Bill, and a noble Lord who was coming from Scotland to speak on the former Bill would have left home before he received notice of the change. That is unless he had taken the precaution of asking the Clerk to send him a telegram. I had to do that last week, when I was asked by the noble Earl the Leader of the House to postpone this Motion. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the telegram is very largely used in the arrangement of the business of this House. Whether there is any other legislative chamber in the world which arranges its business by telegram I do not know, but I should be inclined to doubt it.

Apart from the difficulties which are caused by the shortness of notice there is the question of local administration. I think it will be generally agreed that it is highly desirable that noble Lords should take part in local administration. They have the time and the ability, and not only that, but the experience which noble Lords gain by taking part in local administration enables them to discuss the many measures concerned with local administration which come before this House. I do not know whether my county is in any way peculiar, but nearly all the business is done on Wednesdays. The Quarter Sessions meet on Wednesday and so does the Standing Joint Committee; the County Council meets on Wednesday, except when it clashes with the Quarter Sessions, and then it meets on Tuesday; the Education Committee meets on Wednesday. My diary shows that last year I had thirty-two such Wednesday engagements. The petty sessions with which I am concerned sit on Thursday. Nobody expects to be able to attend all these engagements, but if one is not prepared to attend a very large proportion of them one has no right to sit on these bodies at all. The general upshot is that if one lives any distance from London it is impossible to combine an active share in local administration with regular attendance at this House.

It is no use to complain unless one is prepared to suggest a remedy. The ideal thing, I think, would be that this House should sit for only one week in the month. If it were to sit only on the third week in the month, and even if it only sat for three days of seven hours each, it would get through just as much as it does now, and Peers who live a distance from London would have an opportunity of coming up and attending, because they would be able to make their arrangements in advance. But, apart from that, there are other steps which might be taken. The first is in connection with Bills. There are two facts which I do not think can be disputed. One is that the Government are in full charge of the time available for Parliament, and the other is that Government Bills are always passed. Theoretically, they can be thrown out, but I have been a member of this House for seventeen years and I have never known a Government Bill to be thrown out. When a Bill comes up from the House of Commons it is for some reason or other received by the Front Bench in this House with astonishment. Even such a Bill as the Coal Bill; apparently nobody expected it at all, and the whole programme of business was changed at short notice to make time for it. I see no reason why all the stages of a Bill should not be laid down beforehand. Perhaps the word "provisionally" might be added as a precautionary measure. When a Bill is introduced into this House the Second Reading and other stages could all be put down with some such word as "provisionally" after them, and when it is understood that those dates will be adhered to it will be an enormous convenience to those Peers who live a long way from London.

Another reform which I suggest is that when once a Notice is on the Paper it should not be removed or transferred to another date except by leave of the House, and should not be allowed, as is the case nowadays, to wander about the Order Paper. I could suggest other measures, but perhaps this is hardly the time and place to do so. If a Committee is set up, as I hope it will be, that Committee will go into all these questions. I do not know what support I shall receive for this Motion. I wrote to several noble Lords, who I know are interested, and asked for their support, but they had engagements in remote parts of these islands, and were not able to get here, and some of those who would have been here yesterday are unable to get here to-day. Whether or not I receive active support I have a very large body of silent supporters. Not only to-day but almost every day on which this House sits you will see a large number of vacant seats. Every one of those vacant seats, I submit, represents a supporter of my Motion. This House has something like 800 members. I do not imagine that they would all wish to attend, but I have worked out the Divisions for last year, and I find that the average number of Peers taking part in Divisions, although some of those on the Marriage Bill were very large, was only 69. That means that there attended on an average, even at important debates, only 69 members of the House. As I have said, it would be idle to pretend that all the 800 members would wish to come to the House, but a large proportion of them do wish to take part in our pro- ceedings, and I am convinced that the only reason why they do not come is that under the present system of arrangement of business it is perfectly impossible for them to attend with any regularity unless they live in London. I beg to move.

Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the arrangement of the business of the House.—(Lord Raglan.)


My Lords, I venture to say just a few words on this Motion, with which I have great sympathy, but I can assure the noble Lord who moved it that we all know what the Government reply will be. I will give it before I sit down. The noble Lord has given a very clear explanation of why attendance has been falling off. There are four categories of Peers. There are those who are in constant attendance here whenever the House is sitting. There are those who come when they can, when they are interested in some subject, or if they happen to be passing through London. There are those who will come in response to an urgent Whip, and that is a considerable number. Finally, there are those whom no wild horses would bring here, and there is a considerable number of them. For about five or six years I belonged to the first category, and attended absolutely regularly. I have drifted into the second category, in which I think the noble Lord is, too. Therefore I sympathise very much with him in not knowing what the business is going to be a little way ahead. Also, I very nearly missed this debate. If I had not got into the habit of keeping an eagle eye on my Order Paper I should have missed it.

The Government will say that unfortunately they do their best to arrange business as it comes from the House of Commons; that they are not their own masters in the matter; that they are obliged to conform to the regulations of another place in respect of business; that they cannot tell from week to week what may be urgent and what may not be urgent; and that on the whole they do the business very successfully. However that may be, I do think that there has been a certain clumsiness of late in the methods of arranging business, and I cannot help thinking that more warning might be given of the date of the Second Reading or important stage of a first-class Government measure. At the same time, it is not easy to arrange the business of your Lordships' House, and the hours of our sitting are short.

If the Select Committee is set up for which the noble Lord asks I think there are one or two other matters which might be considered as well—for example, what I may refer to as the banquet question; that is to say, when important leaders of His Majesty's Government suddenly find they have to go to a banquet, and the final stages of business here before the banquet takes place are very hurried, and very often debates are spoilt in that way. I have found that very frequently. I think that ought to be dealt with. I think whoever is in charge of a Bill in this House must give up his banquet. He has plenty of notice of either of those points of Government business and he should make his choice. I often think it is very hard on the noble Earl the Government Whip, who, I think, discharges his very difficult duties to the complete satisfaction of all of us, that he has to fit in a number of speeches into inadequate hours; and in that connection I should like to have it laid down at what time legitimately can the expression "at this late hour" be used. I have heard it used at five o'clock, and I think this idea that it is impossible to endanger our dinners is quite wrong. As a member of the Kitchen Committee, I wish that noble Lords would make more use of the kitchen here for the dinner hour.

I do not want to interfere with the general business arrangements in this House. I should say that our procedure on the whole was almost the best procedure that can be imagined for a deliberative assembly, because it is procedure by consent; but if there is, as the noble Lord has pointed out, any falling off in the attendance, to which I think he is right in drawing attention, it is, I think, that the importance of this House has lessened; and on the whole I do not deplore that particular fact.


My Lords, I feel after the speech of the noble Lord that I ought to apologise to your Lordships for intruding upon your time at this early hour. The noble Lord, Lord Raglan, has moved this Motion for a Select Committee. I do not know whether a Select Committee is quite the right procedure. I am not at all certain that the correct procedure would not be a Court of Inquiry before which the Leader of the House should be commanded to appear in uniform; but that might perhaps trespass in directions which would be undesirable. But I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, that times have changed and habits have changed, and that the House sits longer.

The point which I wish to make to your Lordships is perhaps a smaller point than his. I quite appreciate that in arranging the business of this House there is considerable difficulty, because the business that comes before this House is more or less imposed upon it by what happens in another place. That is inevitable, I think, and cannot be helped. But there is a certain inconsequence about the way in which not only is the business arranged, but is altered. I am a fairly busy man, and many of your Lordships are much more busy. I think I perhaps come somewhere between the second and third categories of Peers mentioned by the noble Lord opposite, in that there are times when there are Motions or Bills before your Lordships' House in which I am definitely interested. We have a certain normal procedure regarding hours, for instance. The House normally meets at 4.15. There are times when, for apparently no reason, the House meets at three o'clock; this afternoon is one of them. I look at the Order Paper, and quite frankly I cannot see any reason for a three o'clock meeting this afternoon. There is no more business on the Order Paper I think—


A League of Nations debate.


A long list of speakers.


Maybe there is a League of Nations debate in prospect, but is there any reason why we should not meet to continue that debate after dinner and conclude it in that way? Because, as I say, many of your Lordships are busy people, we make our engagements a long way ahead, and a sudden earlier meeting makes considerable difficulties for those who, like myself this afternoon, are interested in a particular Bill. I might also in reference to that same Bill mention the fact that the Committee stage without very much warning was altered from a Tuesday to a Wednesday. I am given to under stand it was because the railway companies were unable to conclude their discussions with the Home Office in time for the Tuesday meeting, but I am also given to understand that on that particular occasion it was the Home Office who could not grant an interview to the railway companies in time for the discussions to take place on the Tuesday. These alterations at the last moment in our Order Paper and in our hours of meeting make it difficult very often for busy members of this House to attend regularly, and consequently, on occasions, we get disappointing attendances. I do hope that possibly in the future, as the result of this debate, those who have the ordering of the business of the House will try so far as they can not to make those alterations at the last moment, because I am quite certain that that has a great effect upon the attendance here. But in spite of that, I feel that the Select Committee suggested is not quite the right procedure to deal with the question.


My Lords, there are perhaps several things I might say about this Motion. There is one matter which has not been touched upon which I think I ought to mention to your Lordships. At the present time of the year we are meeting rather frequently at three o'clock. From the point of view of Private Bill Committees that does not so much matter, as most of them are finished, but if we met at three o'clock in the earlier part of the year it might cause great inconvenience. Sometimes we have as many as four Committees sitting, and if noble Lords who are sitting on those Committees have to rise from their work at three o'clock, the fact might prolong the sittings of the Committees, with increased expense to the promoters and others, and generally cause a certain amount of inconvenience. Therefore, I bring this before your Lordships in order that the point may be taken into consideration when suggestions are made for early sittings of the House.


My Lords, I am very glad to have heard what the Chairman of Committees has just said, and I hope that my noble friend Lord Newton, who has a Motion on the Paper with the object of judicial business being conducted in one of the Committee Rooms, will bear it in mind when he moves his Motion in a fortnight's time. The noble Earl on the Woolsack has shown that we should not benefit in the least because we should really be impeding the progress of private business upstairs. Lord Ponsonby alluded to what he called the banquets question, and suggested that these banquets were pleasures. A good many of these public functions, to which the noble Lords on the Front Bench and others have continually to go, are by no means always in the nature of pleasure, and in addition they are not infrequently functions at which some really important speech has to be made.

I play a humble part in helping the noble Earl opposite to arrange business here, and I think that the business of this House is arranged as well and conveniently as it could be done anywhere. I cannot imagine any assembly where the work is more expeditiously or more sensibly conducted. The noble Lord opposite who moved the Motion has suggested that every stage of a Bill should be laid down two or three weeks in advance. How can one tell how many days the Coal Bill, for instance, is going to take on Second Reading or in Committee? Noble Lords go to my noble friend opposite, the Chief Whip, in numbers, and say "I want to speak to-morrow." You cannot get twenty-four noble Lords into one day if they all want to speak for half an hour. Some weight must be attached to considerations such as these, and I shall listen to the reply of the Leader of the House with interest.


My Lords, may I begin by expressing an apology to the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, and to the noble Viscount, Lord Esher, for having asked them, as it appears unnecessarily, to put off their Motions from Wednesday to to-day. My reason for doing so was that, after inquiry, I found that my hopes that the Third Reading of the Coal Bill would be finished in one day were unlikely to be realised, and it seemed extremely probable that noble Lords who were interested in that measure—and there were a great many of them—might say towards the end of Tuesday's sitting that it should be continued on the following day and be given precedence over all other business. If that had happened, a great injustice would have been done to the two noble Lords who had Motions on the Paper. Their business would have come on really late at night, not at what Lord Ponsonby describes as "this late hour," but really late, just before dinner, when the House might be getting very thin. I thought it was in their interest as well as in the interest of your Lordships that I should ask them to postpone the business.

On the general question, I am not going to base myself only on the fact that we have to await in many cases measures coming up from another place. I do want to point out this to your Lordships, which sometimes is forgotten, that neither I, nor the Lord Chancellor, nor my noble friend the Chief Whip of the National Government has any control over your Lordships' business at all. Your Lordships manage your own business, and neither I nor any other Peer can call any member of this House to order; neither the Lord Chancellor nor the Lord Chairman. Your Lordships, I repeat, settle your own business. It is impossible for us very often to know how many Peers are going to take part in debate. Only on the last stage of the Coal Bill several noble Lords, as is customary, came and told the Whips that they wished to speak. Three other Peers then jumped up in the course of the debate and made speeches, and the fact remains that there were eleven Peers who spoke on that occasion, yet the whole of our business was clone in less than two hours and a half. If it had been an earlier stage of the Coal Bill, or many of the debates on foreign affairs, and your Lordships found a list of eleven Peers going to speak, every one would have said, "That is at least three hours and a half, if not four hours." Therefore when the noble Lord suggests that we should be able to plan out well ahead what we are going to do, the answer is that very often we find that your Lordships suddenly take a considerable interest in a particular measure and we have to give up time to it.

Let me, however, say that I have a great deal of sympathy with the complaint made by the noble Lord, Lord Raglan. I am fully aware that many of your Lordships, either from reasons of taxation or Death Duties or because you are taking a great part in local govern- ment, do not any longer find it possible to attend the sittings of the House as used to be the case in days gone by. The whole trend of local government indeed is such that it affects the lives of the people in every kind of way, and Parliament has placed increasing duties on local authorities which it takes them far longer to fulfil than did their duties in the old days. Therefore it becomes extremely difficult for your Lordships to attend as you did before. Then may I say that neither I nor those who advise me arrange our business for the benefit of Peers who live in London. That is very far from being the case. We endeavour to plan out the business of this House in a way, I think, that has only recently been done. Fortunately the Leader of the House now has the advantage of a private secretary with considerable experience of the affairs of your Lordships' House, and the result is that we make out a programme periodically as to what shall be carried through in the course of the next few days. The Whips of the three Parties get these forecasts of business, and we are able to plan out a good deal further ahead than used to be the case only a few years ago. The result is, I hope, that the business of your Lordships' House does not in the end get rushed through in the way it used to be.

Even in the short time that I have been Leader of the House we have had several occasions when a Bill has had to be passed through all its stages by a certain date because the Act it was to replace would lapse only about three weeks ahead. That has entailed finding time for the Second Reading, the Committee stage, Report, and Third Reading to get it through in time for the Royal Commission, and that has sometimes meant altering the whole of the rest of the programme. That is why occasionally we have had to change the business at short notice. But, so far as we can, we do our utmost not to change the business except when we believe it is your Lordships' wish that that should be done. My sole object as Leader of the House, in setting forward the business, is to try to meet the wishes of the majority of your Lordships, even if it sometimes means, as it has meant in this particular case, having to ask noble Lords to postpone a Motion or put back business for a day or more in order to deal with other business.

I doubt whether Lord Raglan has appreciated how great is the increase of business not only with local authorities but in Parliament itself. Just let us see what we are faced with at this moment. We have twelve Public Bills on the Order Paper now in various stages of progress, and I understand that ten more Bills are due to be considered by your Lordships' House which have not yet arrived here, but which have got to be finished, if possible, before we adjourn for the Summer Recess. Noble Lords will realise that that becomes somewhat of a jig-saw puzzle. The result is that sometimes we have asked your Lordships to sit earlier. There, again, I am not in a position to dictate to this House, nor is any other noble Lord. What happens is that I sometimes suggest to your Lordships we should meet at an earlier hour. If the noble Earl the Lord Chairman were still in the House I should have said that I should think that it was his duty to inform your Lordships when Committees were sitting upstairs, or doing business elsewhere which would make it inconvenient for the House to meet earlier. Both I and every other noble Lord would at once give such an intimation full consideration.

The reason we met earlier to-day is that, the League of Nations being the subject under discussion after this Motion, we thought many of your Lordships, as in times past, would wish to take part in that discussion. From my experience of two and a half years at the Foreign Office I know that these League of Nations discussions are not only taken part in by a large number of Peers, but each of those Peers speaks for a very long time. It is by no means uncommon that we should go on until the dinner hour, or at any rate long past what my noble friend opposite described as "this late hour."

As regards banquets, may I say that so far as I am concerned I must admit quite frankly to your Lordships that I have taken advantage of being Leader of your Lordships' House to escape from obligations of that character which, personally, I extremely dislike. I think I have only had to go to two since I have become Leader of your Lordships' House. That is not always the case with other members of the Government, who are required to be present at some semi-official functions, and who, as I think my noble friend Lord Mersey stated, are expected, unfortunately for themselves, to make really important speeches. But it is not members on the Front Bench who are responsible for this banquet business. It is your Lordships yourselves, because, as I am quite certain my noble friend behind me, Lord Lucan, would say—and indeed as is also the case with either of the two other arties—it is by no means easy to keep a House as the dinner hour approaches. When I am told that the proper thing to do is to meet later and sit after dinner, I wonder if the House would be as full as it is now if we were to try to do so.

I admit that a large number of your Lordships attend here because you feel it is your duty to do so and because your predecessors sat here. It has become your duty in the ordinary course of succession to attend here. I quite recognise that there are noble Lords to whom Party politics, or even public affairs in Parliament, do not appeal. They are doing extremely valuable work, public and private, elsewhere. But what does surprise me is that there is apparently no hesitation whatever amongst gentlemen in accepting the honour of a scat in your Lordships' House and then not seeming to realise that it carries with it any obligation whatever.


Hear, hear!


I admit I am surprised that we do not hear on more occasions that those who are felt worthy of the honour do not ask leave to decline it, realising what they should do if they accept.

I do not think there is anything I can very well say beyond what I have said. We have to recognise that the business of this House has really become a full-time job, at any rate as regards the afternoons. And as regards the mornings, I can assure your Lordships that those who sit on this Bench have very full mornings, and their day's work has by no means come to an end when your Lordships rise. I doubt very much whether anything further would be elicited by the appointment of a Select Committee, but I am entirely in your Lordships' hands about it if your Lordships should desire that that should be done. But I can only think that the facts I have ventured to state to your Lordships would simply appear as a result of their Report, and, that they would say, with Bills coming up from another place and with the freedom which is allowed to all noble Lords in the conduct of the business, it is really impossible to lay down a programme a long way ahead with any likelihood of its being possible to adhere to it strictly. Therefore I should think that it would be a waste of time to those noble Lords who would be asked to servo on that Committee, because, frankly, I think we have the facts before us. As far as I am concerned I will do my best to forecast all the business as soon as I can, and, still more, not to change it once the business has appeared upon the Paper. But I feel that it is my duty to your Lordships to try to get the business settled for the convenience of the majority, and therefore, if some noble Lords suffer from that, I hope I shall be forgiven in trying to do my best to meet the wishes of the House as a whole.


My Lords, I am sorry to inflict myself upon you after the speech of the noble Earl the Leader of the House, but he let fall two remarks to which I think I might reply. I listened with great interest to his remarks about Peers being introduced into this House, taking their seats and then never appearing again. It is some years since I first had the honour of having a seat in this distinguished assembly, and I well remember before I took my seat that I had a letter from the Leader of the House asking me to attend here. Take for example what is done in the case of every magistrate appointed for London. You get a letter from the Lord-Lieutenant asking you to subscribe to a declaration that you will do your duty and attend. I think if something of that sort was sent round to new Peers they would feel an obligation to come here. In the eyes of other legislators and the public it is often thought, when decisions are arrived at in this House with an attendance of under one hundred, that really the House of Lords is not doing its duty.

I am not going to enter into the discussion that has already taken place as to the difficulties of getting here, nor to the fact that so many Peers have business in the country and are doing very good work for their country by taking part in local government. There is, however, another point and it is this. The noble Earl the Leader of the House said there were ten more public Bills coming up from the House of Commons. That is a very old complaint. Year after year the rush of business towards the end of a Session has been spoken about. On one occasion at the adjournment, when the Socialist Government was in power, I congratulated that Government upon having introduced so many Bills in the first instance in this House. Afterwards I was told by the Leader of my Party that I had no right to praise the Socialist Government; but I did. I am not going to mention names, but it is the fact that very important Bills were initiated in this House and were very skilfully conducted through it. Might I ask the Government when they are consulting, as I am sure they do, the authorities of the other House, to arrange that if there are some Bills (and I am sure there are many) that could be introduced into this House first of all, that should be done. It would save a lot of time and we should get them at a period when people are not so busy as we all are at this time of the year. I should not have risen at all but for the few remarks of the noble Earl.


May I mention one point to the noble Lord and that is to recall the extremely solemn words read out when a noble Lord first takes the Oath in this House. They are: (waiving all excuses) you be personally present to treat and give your counsel.


But he is so frightened when he first hears those words read out that he does not pay much attention to what is being read. I think if a personal letter came from the Leaders of the respective Parties, who are responsible for their followers, it would have a much greater effect than those words, which are common form and have not that personal touch which a Leader of any one of the three Parties would give.


My Lords, really if you want to improve the attendance in this House you should increase the number of the Opposition. Give me fifty resolute Peers and I can assure you of a very good attendance and very careful examination of all business.


My Lords, the noble Earl has said that business is arranged to suit the majority of the House, but as far as I can make out that means the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, who seems to be the only Peer to express unqualified approval of the arrangements made. It cannot be seriously maintained that the handful of Peers who do attend are representative of the majority. The majority are out in the country unable to attend because the present arrangement of business prevents their attendance. The noble Earl said it is difficult to get Peers to attend after dinner. Of course it is, because they never know they are expected to attend after dinner until the same day or the day before. If they had a fortnight's or a month's notice that there might be an after-dinner sitting I have no doubt that a large number would be present. I quite appreciate the difficulty in July, when a large number of Bills are coming from another place, but that is no excuse in my view for the manner in which business is conducted during the rest of the year. I shall not press my Motion, but I do hope that the noble Earl will do as he says and try to give us more notice than hitherto of the business of the House.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned during pleasure, and resumed by the Lord Chancellor.