§ Order of the Day for the consideration of the First Report from the Select Committee read.
The Committee reported as follows:
That in the opinion of the Committee, for the duration of the present state of emergency, starred questions should be placed on the Order Paper for Tuesdays only and should on that day take precedence over other Notices and Orders of the Day; that the period devoted
to such starred questions should not exceed a quarter of an hour; that no Peer should be entitled to put more than two starred questions on the Paper for any one day; that no starred question should be accepted by the Clerk at the Table for a date more than one week ahead.
THE CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (THE EARL OF ONSLOW)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Report be now considered.
§ Moved, That the Report be now considered.—(The Earl of Onslow.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH had given Notice of the following Motion: That the First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure of the House be referred back to the Select Committee with an instruction that precedence be not given to starred questions and to consider and report on the desirability of continuing the practice of starred questions in this House. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Motion which I have put upon the Paper of your Lordships' House is there because I am of the opinion that the Select Committee have made a mistake in the recommendations which they have put before your Lordships' House. I propose to explain quite respectfully, I hope, to the Select Committee and also quite frankly, why I hold that opinion. Perhaps it is appropriate that this Motion should be made by a Back Bench member who has had for a good many years now the privilege of being a member of your Lordships' House and has practically the whole of that time sat upon the Back Benches.
I think perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House if I were to read to your Lordships the Report of the Committee which we are considering because it is not on the Order Paper and I do not know if all of your Lordships have had the Report. It is quite short and says:
That in the opinion of the Committee, for the duration of the present state of emergency, starred questions should be placed on the Order Paper for Tuesdays only and should on that day take precedence over other Notices and Orders of the Day; that the period devoted to such starred questions should not exceed a quarter of an hour; that no Peer should be entitled to put more than two starred questions on the Paper for any one day; that no starred question should be accepted by the Clerk at the Table for a date more than one week ahead.
No reasons are given for this proposal and no guidance is given on the number of very critical points that will arise if the suggestion is accepted.
§ In my submission the putting into practice of the proposal which has been made bristles with practical difficulties. The Select Committee have quite rightly perceived that if priority is to be given to starred questions then there must be a time limit. I would like to make clear that what I regard as the objectionable essence of this suggestion is giving priority to these starred questions. That will cut fundamentally across Standing Order XXI which provides that all Notices are to be put upon the Paper in the order in which they are received. Standing Order XXI is, in my submission, one of the fundamental pillars of order in your Lordships' House. The Select Committee having decided to recommend this experiment, quite rightly see that a time limit is necessary and that time limit is to be a quarter of an hour. That is not so simple as it sounds. It is not as though it will be a straight quarter of an hour, say, from 2 o'clock to 2.15 each day, assuming that we meet at 2. To begin with there may be prayers at the opening of the sitting. If the House has not met earlier in the day for other business there will be prayers when we assemble. Therefore the beginning and termination of the quarter of an hour will depend upon the speed with which the Bishop in charge of our devotions gets through that particular part of the proceedings.
§ Then there are other matters which may come before these priority questions. There may be the introduction of a new Peer. It has been the practice in your Lordships' House, for some years now, for introductions to take place on Wednesday, but so far as I know there is nothing statutory about that. It might be quite impossible for some very important new member of your Lordships' House to attend on a Wednesday and his introduction might have to be made on a Tuesday. Therefore the quarter of an hour, assuming that we met at 2 o'clock, would not be from 2 o'clock to 2.15 or even from 2.5 to 2.20. An introduction takes quite a long time. Then there are private notice questions; and we might have a statement on the war. Perhaps we may have a statement soon to give us very good news about the war, and that might be given on a Tuesday. That might take 398 quite a long time. The first point then is that we should need some machinery to make note of when the quarter of an hour begins and when it ends. We have nobody in this House on whom that duty can really be put.
§ The matter does not end there. There will also be the duty of deciding between supplementary questions which are in order and those which are not in order, because it is part of the procedure of the starred question that a Peer may put a supplementary question which ought to be in order but which sometimes is not. The duty will have to reside in somebody to say whether a supplementary question is in order or not. Then what is to happen to supplementary questions which are not reached within the time limit? If there is to be a period of fifteen minutes for questions and the procedure is largely availed of—and the Select Committee must have anticipated that it will be, or they would not have made this Report—we shall have some questions ruled out on account of time. No guidance has been given at all as to what is to happen to them.
§ These are perhaps only a few of the practical difficulties which will arise. I venture to say to your Lordships that there is only one person who will have to handle these difficulties and that is the Leader of the House. It is in my opinion putting an unfair burden on the Leader of the House to lay these onerous and difficult duties upon him. The qualities required in the holder of the great office of Leader of your Lordships' House are very special qualities. We have had many great Leaders in this House and we consider we deserve a great Leader of the House. The House has almost always been fortunate in securing the Leader which it deserves. But the qualities required in a Leader of your Lordships' House are not the qualities required of a Speaker of the House of Commons. I submit that it is a great mistake to confuse the qualities required of a Leader of your Lordships' House and those required of the Speaker in another place. It is not the traditional habit of the Leader of your Lordships' House to intervene in debates on questions of order. It has never been the practice, and I think it would be a profound mistake to depart from our tradition and to introduce this procedure which will change the tradition of your Lordships' House.399
§ And it is not necessary. There is no object in this proposed new practice, because any Peer, as your Lordships know, can put down a question and get an answer without making a speech on any day he wants. There is no danger of his being crowded out. It is quite different in another place. I understand that in another place—it may not always happen but it happens sometimes—a Member who is going to put down a question thinks of the supplementary question first and then when he has thought of a telling supplementary he puts a question down in order to get the opportunity of working off a point which is going to come later as if it were extempore. I submit that we do not want that sort of thing in your Lordships' House. We do not want a question time of the sort they have in the House of Commons. The difference resides in the fact that in another place they have a benignant and powerful umpire to see that the rules of the game are observed. The tradition of the House of Commons is quite different from the tradition of your Lordships' House. There they have an elaborate code of rules—many of your Lordships have been members of another place and know more about it than I do—running to many hundreds of pages regulating with the strictest meticulonsness their order of debate, and the Speaker is there to see that those rules are obeyed. It is not, I think, disrespectful to another place to say that it is part of the game to see if one can dodge the ruling of the Speaker. It is regularly done. The more skilful the Member is the more chance he has of getting in his point in spite of the Speaker's ruling.
§ The game which we play is precisely the converse. We play here a game which consists in keeping within the spirit—not the letter—of the widest rules of order which exist in any debating chamber in the world. It is not too much to say that our procedure is the admiration of every debating chamber in the world, and I think it is our pride that we do keep within these rules which are so very elastic and are not definite rules of order expressed in laws written in a book. That is the whole difference between this place and another place, and it is a difference that we all love. It is a difference of tradition, a difference of atmosphere, which I think we have to try to preserve.400
§ To sum the matter up I think this is an attempt to introduce House of Commons procedure without having House of Commons machinery. Think of the difference in kind of the questions asked in another place. In another place every Member represents a constituency. Enormous numbers of questions arise out of details which have to do with a Member's constituency and the interests of people there. Members represent their constituents and they have to put the questions. In your Lordships' House the questions are far more often questions of broad national interest and the circumstances are entirely different. I would like to make it quite clear that I have no objection to the starred question provided our rules of order are preserved, but unfortunately that has not always been the case, and—I say it again with great respect—the offenders are people who come from another place and who take a little time to get acclimatized to the atmosphere and the spirit in which we do our business here.
§ I am very sorry to notice that the noble Lord, Lord Wedgwood, is not in his place because I told him that I was going to refer to-day to some of his exploits, and I had hoped that he would have been here. The noble Lord, of course, has always prided himself upon being a rebel; one might say perhaps that he revels in being a rebel, and in another place he spent his time trying to dodge the rules of order. Not long ago to our great delight he came here and we are very pleased to see him. While I may say that I believe he loves this House and its atmosphere, I think I may add, without disrespect, that he has not yet become entirely acclimatized. I need only refer to his effort the other day when he put a starred question on the Paper about Lenin's bust. Having had his answer he had a perfect right to ask a supplementary question, but he proceeded to make a speech about the activities of the Fascists. If the noble Lord had understood that that sort of thing was not done in this House, he would not have done it. I do suggest that the method by which we conduct our business—that is, by keeping voluntarily to the spirit of our rules—is the method that suits this House, and the atmosphere here is one to which the noble Lords who come from the other end of the passage should acclimatize themselves. We have had the great pleasure of receiving here not 401 very long ago a whole batch of active young Peers from the other end of the passage. We delight in the contributions which they make to our debates, but some of us who have been here quite a long time think that they have got to be gradually absorbed and gradually to be acclimatized in the atmosphere in which they now find themselves.
§ There is one further consideration to which I would draw your Lordships' attention. No really important point, in my recollection, has been raised on a starred question. Important debates arise on ordinary questions which any member can put and to which he will get an answer. I can see nothing that will be lost by refusing this priority, and I can see a great deal that will be preserved by refusing to make a change. There is one small matter in which I think it is possible to make a case for the starred question. That is in instances where the Minister who has to reply is a busy man, as indeed all Ministers are just now. It is argued that it is desirable to save him waiting for some time and to allow him to answer his question at the beginning of business and get back to his Departmental work. I think that there are two answers to that argument. One is that the majority of starred questions, perhaps, are not answered by the responsible Minister. Many of the responsible Ministers are not in this House, and consequently many of the starred questions are answered by noble Lords representing a Minister. That could always be done. The second answer is that the Minister need not wait if he does not want to do so. If he knows that there is going to be a long debate he can apologize to his noble friend who puts the question, and slip away, leaving someone else to answer for him. He need not remain here the whole afternoon. I would like to remind your Lordships that this proposal was considered by the Select Committee as recently as 1940. It was then turned down. It has now been considered again and has been fortunate enough to secure what I may call this rather halfhearted approval. I think that the atmosphere of your Lordships' House is part of the very fabric of our constitution, and I ask your Lordships to refuse this innovation which is alien to our atmosphere and repugnant to the traditions of your Lordships' House.402
§ Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure of the House be referred back to the Select Committee with an instruction that precedence be not given to starred questions and to consider and report on the desirability of continuing the practice of starred questions in this House.—(Lord Balfour of Burleigh.)
§ LORD RANKEILLOUR
My Lords, I do not know whether Lord Balfour of Burleigh will think that I have been sufficiently acclimatized. I have now been here for ten years, but perhaps I may have got some of the Old Adam about me still. However, I will ease the noble Lord's fears by saying at once that I am not going to argue for a moment that what is good in the House of Commons is necessarily good here. I am not going to quote any precedent from the House of Commons, but I do say that the present position is awkward and anomalous. I do not put it higher than that because this is not a matter of the first importance, and I cannot see that our constitution will be in any way damaged if this is passed. The first argument I would put forward is this. It is an advantage to get an early answer and to get an early answer from a responsible Minister. If it is left to some Whip or other to answer the question— well, I pity the Whip; not that he may not be a most admirable man but if he gives the answer and the questioner jumps up and says, as he has a right to do, "Will the Government pursue this matter?" the Whip will not be able to answer. Therefore I suggest that you must have a responsible man to give an answer on the spot. Secondly, I submit that it ought to be an answer without leading to a debate, and that is an advantage of starring. If you do not star you may very often have a very long and very irrelevant debate following the question, and it cannot be stopped.
Also, I say that a short item on your Lordship's agenda ought to be taken before a long one. It is surely better to wait as much as a quarter of an hour before having a debate which may take three hours than to have a three-hour debate and to keep people who are interested in a starred question—including the Minister who is to answer it—waiting all the time for something which may end by occupying only three minutes. We do 403 something of the sort now. We do not begin the business at present with items that are likely to take a long time. We have such things as the confirming of an Order. That only takes half a minute. It is a great advantage to get rid of an uncomfortable item very quickly. I am told that one noble Lord who enjoys the confidence of your Lordships' House and of the country had not long ago to sit waiting for a good three hours instead of devoting his time to his very responsible war duty because of a starred question. I think that sort of thing ought to be stopped.
As to the argument that this would be a breach in your Lordships' tradition, and would involve practical points of great difficulty, I think that Lord Balfour of Burleigh has not sufficiently appreciated the digestive power, the assimilative power of your Lordships' House. No doubt some difficulties will arise, but no more than arise at present, or that might arise at present if your Lordships were to take full advantage of your opportunities. The adoption of this would only mean adding one more rule to many rules that your Lordships work with perfect ease and without any pressure from any side at all. On the face of the rules of your Lordships' House, there is not one of them which could not be broken with the greatest ease. I would myself engage, if I could get two tough colleagues among your Lordships to support me—tough physically, and in the Transatlantic sense as well—to smash all the rules of your Lordships' House with the greatest ease. This is only adding one more rule, which we shall work just as well as we work the others. Coming to the practical question of time, your Lordships can note the time by which one or two of the early items have been dealt with, and take a quarter of an hour from that. It will easily be perceived when the quarter of an hour is over, and a few cries of "Order, Order" would reduce the most truculent member of this House to silence. It is only asking your Lordships to do in one more instance what is already done in a great many. This is not a matter of great importance, but it will be a help to the procedure of your Lordships' House, and in many cases will save a great deal of trouble to responsible Ministers. I hope, therefore, that it will be agreed to.
§ LORD PONSONBY OF SHULBREDE
My Lords, the noble Lord who has just sat down said twice in the course of his remarks that this was not, he thought, a matter of importance. I am not sure. He reminds me rather of the King of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland who presided over the trial of the Knave and who could not make up his mind whether a thing was important or unimportant, and who never came to any conclusion about it. These small things start a precedent. Who wants this? I have never heard an outcry from noble Lords in favour of starred questions. There is something rather infra dig. in our trying to copy the practice of the House of Commons in having an hour for questions, which is one of the most valuable customs which they have, and of saying that we will be content with a quarter of an hour. The noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, showed how difficult it is even to do that. The right reverend Prelates will have to be timed to see how long they take over Prayers, and even then we shall not be perfectly certain that we have given the right amount of time. We cannot call members of this House to order, and so I do not quite know when we are going to stop, and how we are going to deal with supplementary questions. I suppose the Clerk of the Parliaments will have to be provided with a certain amount of furniture. He will have to have a sandglass, and he will somehow or other have to communicate with the Leader of the House, or with whoever happens to be leading at the moment, and tell him when to get up and remind the speaker that he has gone beyond the time-limit. I do not know how that is to be done. It will be a difficult piece of mechanism, but no doubt it can be done.
This is really, if I may say so, a ridiculous idea. If your Lordships really wanted it, and expressed a great feeling in favour of it, one would be ready to give way at once. I do not like this idea of "atmosphere," which Lord Balfour of Burleigh has stressed. The important point is that this is, I believe, the only public assembly in the world which is conducted by consent and not by regulations. I think that that is an extremely important thing to keep, and we should not have these petty, tinkering methods to try to regulate part of it. This proposal is not wanted, and, instead of sending it backwards and for- 405 wards to the Committee, like battledore and shuttlecock, it would be better to put an end to it now. It is part of the Motion, and it could be detached and dealt with here and now. I may be out of order now, because I was on the Committe and was defeated on a vote being taken in the Committee, but, curiously enough, I thought that most of the members of the Committee agreed with me. I think that some of them were suffering from the King of Hearts' or Lord Rankeillour's doubts about what is important and what is not. However that may be, I apologize if I am irregular in speaking for a minority of the Committee, but I do hope that we shall dispose of this matter here and now.
§ LORD JESSEL
My Lords, I should very much like to support the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, to reject this proposal. The only advantage of the proposal, as far as I can see, is that adumbrated by Lord Rankeillour, that it would give us another quarter of an hour after lunch to smoke a cigar and drink our coffee in peace, because we need not trouble to be here. I think that we have got on extremely well up to now in your Lordships' House, and why we should have this innovation I cannot understand. The suggestion has been made that it has been due to the recent influx of ex-members of the House of Commons, but I do not see why, even if that is the case, we should try to imitate the procedure of another place.
I do not understand why we should not have more than one quarter of an hour at each series of sittings. There may be two or three noble Lords who wish to put down starred questions on the same day, and that may take up some time. Moreover, to answer these questions is not an easy matter for the Departments; it involves taking a great deal of time and trouble. In the course of rather a long political and public life, I have had the experience of having to reply for a Department to questions asked in Parliament. I know that the trouble given to a Department, even in peace-time, is very great, and in war it will add another to the large number of burdens on the Departments, because, once this habit of asking starred questions grows, noble Lords who wish to make themselves prominent in the public eye—I do not say that there will necessarily be any, because 406 they have no constituencies—will put down these starred questions, and we shall have a multiplicity of them, which will be very troublesome.
I am very sorry that a Minister should have been kept waiting for three hours, but, if I may again refer to another place, of which I had the privilege of being a member for a great many years, that often happens there, and, if it was very important that a Minister should go away, he could get even our despised Chief Whip to answer for him and make an apology. I cannot see that any case has been made out for this alteration. I have forgotten who the members of the Select Committee are. No doubt they are very important members of this House, but I am an independent person, and I agree to differ from them. I hope, therefore, that we shall not change the atmosphere of this distinguished assembly, get involved in points of order, and have to look at the clock, with somebody being called to order for overstaying the mark; but that we shall continue in the future as we have done in the past. I am not one of those who believe in making changes for change's sake, and therefore I hope this Motion will be carried.
§ LORD DAVIES
My Lords, we have listened to three very interesting and amusing speeches, and it occurs to me that the importance of this question has been very grossly exaggerated. Before coming here I looked up the debate in this House when the starred question was born, when it was first introduced. That was on the 11th March, 1919. Then the Leader of the House, Lord Curzon of Kedleston, came down and made various suggestions to their Lordships. Some of the arguments which were used during that debate are relevant to this discussion. Therefore perhaps the House will allow me to read one or two passages from Lord Curzon's speech. He said:When Standing Orders were drawn it cannot, I think, have been contemplated that questions should assume anything like the place they now occupy in the attentions of your Lordships' Mouse. Question are, from one point of view, our most cherished privilege, and I am certain your Lordships would not wish to forgo their full and legitimate exercise, but it is also true that they are the case in which our regulations—I would draw Lord Balfour of Burleigh's attention to that point—that there were 407 regulations, and that these regulations have been added to from time to time—are most consistently and flagrantly violated.That is what Lord Curzon said on that occasion, when he was introducing the proposal for starred questions.
Lord Balfour did not suggest that any question of principle arose. I understand that he does not object to unstarred questions being asked in this House, and he does not really object to starred questions. Therefore it is merely a question of convenience and of procedure. All we have to consider is whether this proposal to give priority on the Order Paper to starred questions will enable us to perform our duties better. I may perhaps be allowed to quote another passage in the speech of Lord Curzon on that occasion. He said:I would like to suggest to your Lordships that you should be willing to put your questions in one or other of two categories. If you decide to put a question for information and you seek a reply only to the question upon the Paper, I would suggest to your Lordships that in handing it in you should be willing to put it into a category confined to questions of that nature, to which an asterisk might be affixed and which might be taken in the order in which they are handed in at the commencement of our proceedings.That is what Lord Curzon suggested—that the starred questions should come at the commencement of our proceedings. He continued:The Minister concerned, whatever Department he represented, would then know the kind of ordeal which faced him. He would know he had to supply information in reply to that question and was not expected to prepare himself for a general debate.So I think your Lordships will agree that the point we have to decide is a very simple one, and I cannot help feeling that the Report which we are now discussing is a somewhat complicated way of trying to settle it.
I cannot help feeling that the Committee made heavy weather in regard to this particular matter. After all, what are the objects of the restrictions which we are asked to endorse this afternoon? So far as I can see, if we reduce the number of starred questions we shall only be increasing the number of unstarred questions, because if any of us find that the starred question cannot go down on the Paper because we cannot be here on a Tuesday afternoon, or because we are crowded out, 408 or for some other reason, then our remedy is to put the question down as an unstarred one. That means that there may be a general debate; and if we put down the five words ''and to move for Papers" at the end of the question, we can make two speeches instead of one. That does not seem to add to the efficiency of the proceedings in this House.
Then the restrictions. Tuesdays only—that is the first. Well, it is inconvenient for many of us to be here on a Tuesday. Next we are restricted to a quarter of an hour, we are restricted to two questions only, and we cannot put down the questions more than a week in advance. Those are the restrictions suggested. I honestly confess that I prefer the existing procedure, which does not limit us in any way. We can put down questions on any day of the week, and we are not limited as to the number of starred questions which go down on the Paper, I should have thought that Lord Balfour, from his point of view, would have preferred the restrictions which are included in the Report rather than go on with the present arrangements. However, I feel I must support his proposal for referring the matter back to the Committee, not because I do not want the starred question to have priority and to come, as Lord Curzon suggested, at the beginning of our business, but because I think that the cure which the Committee proposed is much worse than the disease. Therefore I sincerely hope that when the Report goes back to the Committee the Committee will consider this very simple point—and it is really the only point—whether it is for the convenience of the Minister. That was the only, reason why Lord Curzon introduced the starred question at all, because Ministers want to know precisely what points they will have to answer, whether they will have to reply to a general debate or merely give the information which a noble Lord wants, and which is definitely stated in the question. Therefore I sincerely hope that the Committee will look into the matter once again and that as a result of their investigations they may be willing to allow starred questions—after all, they are very few—for the convenience of the Minister and for the convenience of your Lordships, to be put first on the Paper.
§ LORD ADDISON
My Lords, the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, shows how 409 unfortunate is the position of those who strive to arrive at compromises, because he is a champion of starred questions. His representations at one time and another had a material share in this matter being referred to the Committee. The Committee weighed all the pros and cons. There has been nothing mentioned here to-day by any noble Lord which was not mentioned before the Committee. Every consideration conjured up by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, was brought before the Committee—every one of them. It seems to me that this matter has been strangely magnified out of all reasonable proportion. I speak as an unrepentant recruit from the other House. I do not feel in the least chastened by the admonitions of the noble Lord. I cannot claim to have the advantage of youth, but it does not follow—does it?—because you happen to have been twenty years in the other place, you may not bring some useful contribution here. The noble Lord seemed to speak as if it did. I hope he is not in that archaic frame of mind. One of the high qualities of this House is that it sensibly adapts itself to the times in a remarkable way, and the prestige of your Lordships' debates during the war period is good evidence of that remarkable response.
The point here is not whether a man who has a starred question on the Paper is going to make a nuisance of himself by asking a lot of supplementary questions. That does not arise. We have had starred questions for more than twenty years, and any noble Lord, if he had been so disposed, could have done that at any time all these twenty years. It makes no difference in that respect at all. The fact that it is not done is because noble Lords seek to behave themselves and be sensible members of the House, as everybody I am sure would wish to do. It is the tradition of the House that it maintains its own order, and it can be fairly said that even the recruits from the other place have sought with diligence and good nature to adapt themselves to that tradition. I am sure that no accusation can be brought against them to the contrary. There is nothing new at issue. A member can ask any number of supplementary questions already. The only point is whether, instead of starred questions being put on the Order Paper in the order in which Notices are given in at the Table, they should have an appointed place one day in 410 the week. That is the only point. My noble friend Lord Davies wants it to happen every day; some noble Lords do not want it any day; so the Committee recommended a compromise for one day.
§ LORD DAVIES
Do we understand that starred questions can be put down on the other two days, although they do not come first? If that is so, I withdraw all I said.
§ LORD ADDISON
I am glad to have converted the noble Lord. It does not make the slightest difference. He or any other member can put down starred questions. If he puts down a starred question and wants it to be answered, he must put it down for Tuesday only. He can put it down at any time, but if he wants it answered it must be a starred question put down for Tuesday. The only point is whether, instead of starred questions coming in the order in which they are given in at the Table, they should have an appointed place. The appointed place recommended was one day a week—namely, Tuesday.
§ LORD ADDISON
They can be given in at the Table, but they can only be taken on Tuesdays. We have examined the Order Paper for a long time past, and if the noble Lord does so he will find that the number of starred questions is very small indeed. I know that on a number of occasions it has been a real inconvenience to a Minister to have to wait a considerable time because some starred question did not come on until after some other matter which gave rise to a long debate. That is a consideration of real importance. Those of us who have been Ministers and have had to answer questions, recognize that it is a great convenience to know, "I shall have to answer questions on Tuesday." I do not approve of the animadversions on the Chief Whip. I think the House is entitled, if a Minister is a member of the House, to receive an answer from the Minister. This is Parliament; and I do not think anybody could accuse your Lordships of putting down questions just for the sake of putting them down. The number is very small, and I suppose it will continue to be small. But this appears to be the fate of people who honestly try to arrive at a compromise. 411 It was felt that it would not do to have them every day, so it was limited to one day. It was felt it would be for the convenience of Ministers and of members if they knew when the questions would be reached. Therefore it was appointed for Tuesday, and in order to make it safer still for my noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh, it was limited to the war period so that we should see how we got on. Quite frankly, it has been represented to me by many noble Lords that this would be a great convenience both to members and to Ministers, and I hope your Lordships will be willing to adopt and accept, for this limited period, this friendly compromise.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, may I say at once that in any animadversions which have been made upon noble Lords who have reached us from another place, I am quite certain no one dreamt of including the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition? On the contrary, he is one of our most valued members, and we should have been very sorry indeed if he had not come here. I am afraid the Report of the Committee has not fared very well in your Lordships' House. My noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh does not approve of it, but I certainly thought Lord Davies would have approved of it. He is an authority on starred questions, almost the best authority we possess in the House on that subject. We certainly thought—those of us who considered this in Committee—that it would be a great consolation to Lord Davies if the Report were approved. I do not conceal from myself that it is in the nature of a compromise, with all the mischiefs of compromises. I do not know that the Committee would have agreed to it but for the great weight of the influence which was brought to bear upon us.
There are in your Lordships' House not only one Opposition but there are two Oppositions. There are two of the great Parties of the State represented here, the Labour party and the Liberal party, and the pressure which was put upon us in the Committee was from the most influential members of those two Parties. In those circumstances it would have been very difficult, I think, to have met it with a direct negative. The difficulties are very great and I may say quite frankly 412 to your Lordships, that I think the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has limited too much the difficulty. He said it was only a question of putting these starred questions on a particular day but, for the reasons which have already been stated and which I am not going to repeat, they have to be limited as to time. That is clear. We could not allow starred questions to have precedence without any limit of time, because they might go on so as completely to throw out of gear the whole of your Lordships' Order Paper. Therefore there has to be a limit of time.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfour, has already pointed out that that means there must be somebody, some authority, who will say when the time has been reached when these things come to an end. Who is to be the authority? I dare hardly say it in his presence, but I am sure no one would be so shocked as the Clerk of the Parliaments if he was called upon to intervene in your Lordships' debates. Then there is my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack. We have the most profound respect for the occupant of the Woolsack, but one of the things we do not like at all is that he should assume the office of Speaker. That is, of course, very essential in your Lordships' House. We are all Peers, we are all equal, even the Lord Chancellor is not allowed to sit upon a bench higher than anybody else's bench, and if he does address your Lordships' House he has to vacate the Woolsack. So one would eliminate him from consideration in this connexion. Then, who else is there? There is the Leader of the House. I have no right to speak on behalf of the present Leader of the House, but I have some knowledge of what are the functions of a Leader of the House, and undoubtedly for him to keep order in this matter would present considerable difficulties. Let your Lordships picture to yourselves how the matter might arise. A supplementary question of a very difficult kind for the Minister might be put at the last moment of the quarter of an hour, and is the Minister himself to try and stop that question? Is he to say to the noble Lord who is about to put, or is in the act of putting, an inconvenient question: "No, no, the quarter of an hour is up"? No Leader of the House could protect himself in that kind of way. He certainly would feel great embarrass- 413 ment. In the same way it might he difficult for the questioner who wanted to put the question if he was stopped in that way at the last moment. I think the Leader of he House would find very considerable difficulty.
I am a member of the Committee and of course I accept the decision of the Committee, but I would like, if I may venture to say so, and if your Lordships will not think it too pompous of me to do so, to give a warning to your Lordships. Things are very easy now. We are all practically united. No body of men could behave better than the Opposition do in your Lordships' House. I hope they will forgive my using what may seem a patronizing phrase. But there are other times which I remember, and times will come again when there will be sharp divisions of opinion in your Lordships' House, when there will be legislation of a particular kind which very much excites the opposition of noble Lords in different parts of the House. Then the time of questions may become an extremely difficult one for the Government and difficult for your Lordships too. These things which seem simple enough now may become very awkward.
§ LOUD ADDIS0N
May I point out to the noble Marquess—I am sure he will not resent my doing so—that this is limited to the war period?
§ LORD ADDISON
I think the noble Marquess is referring to the piping times of peace, when we cease to be united. I am only saying that this proposal is limited to the war.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
Yes, but these precedents do not come to an end like that. I am afraid my experience is that once you start these things they are extremely difficult to stop, and the result would be that questions would go on after the war period just as they do now. Then the difficulty would arise when you have got to the limit of the quarter of an hour. It will be almost impossible then to put in force the new Standing Order. Your Lordships are very familiar with the way in which we treat our Orders. Everybody will say: "Let him go on." They would surely not wish to tie down the questioner or the Ministerial 414 answer to the limit which this Report prescribes. Therefore I think there would be difficulty. But if the House is willing to accept this compromise as an experiment I should certainly support that. I would be very sorry, however, that the House should think it is a very small matter. I do not think it is a very small matter. It is the introduction of a new principle into the machinery and the way it is to be worked out may turn out to be rather difficult.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
My Lords, as I was Chairman of the Procedure Committee, possibly your Lordships would think it strange if I did not say a word or two on this matter. I had not intended to do so because when the Committee met I was ill in bed and took no part in their deliberations. I was not familiar with many of the arguments put forward until I came to your Lordships' House this afternoon and heard what was said. Like my noble friend Lord Salisbury, I loyally accept the decision of the Committee and I would not in any way endeavour to oppose it; yet it does seem to me, as there are so many different opinions, that perhaps a little further consideration might not come amiss. There was one point that struck me and that was the one raised as to the convenience of the Minister and the desirability—with which I entirely agree—that the Minister in charge of the Department to whom the question is put should be able to give answers to supplementary questions. But during my now more than thirty years' experience of your Lordships' House I have found that on not rare occasions the answers to question are not given by the Minister in charge of the Department but by noble Lords on the Front Bench holding Court appointments, or noble Lords sitting on that Bench who are in charge of other Departments.
I happened to sit on that Bench for something like ten years, and I represented various Departments during that time, but I never had only my own Department to deal with. I always had one other and sometimes two others. Therefore it is not on every occasion, at any rate, that you have a Minister answering a question who is in charge of the Department. I do not put that in any controversial spirit but merely to clarify the issue. I am not expressing any opinion, not having heard the arguments until this afternoon and per- 415 haps not having heard all the arguments now, but personally, if I could have the opportunity of listening to further arguments on both sides, I should feel more comfortable in my mind.
My Lords, as a member of the Select Committee on Procedure, I would ask to be allowed to make one or two observations. I think that generally speaking it is a fact that the work of this House, so far as debates are concerned, is performed largely by Peers who have been members of the House of Commons. There are, of course, notable exceptions; for instance, the Service members of your Lordships' House. We are fortunate in having Peers who are members of the Services and are representative of them. But generally speaking, I think those who take a prominent part in the debates in your Lordships' House have served their apprenticeship in the House of Commons, and it is right that, in a matter of this kind, their views should be given every consideration. If those noble Lords were unanimous in their views it would be very easy to arrive at a conclusion, but as it is they appear to be almost equally divided.
On the one hand, we have the noble Lords, Lord Addison and Lord Rankeillour and my noble friend Viscount Samuel, who could not be here to-day, but against them we have Lord Ullswater, Lord FitzAlan and the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord Jessel, who have spoken this afternoon, in support of the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh. He has explained what I think is the House of Lords point of view on this matter and I do not wish to pursue his arguments. I agree generally with what he said. I must say that I think very faint support is given to the findings of the Committee by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and by the Lord Chairman of Committees. In fact I think in their view this fifteen minutes would be a very mauvais quart d'heure in your Lordships' House. Two noble Lords, Lord FitzAlan and Lord Donoughmore, who have been unfortunately prevented from attending to-day, have both empowered me to say that had they been here they would have supported Lord Balfour of Burleigh. If the matter is pressed to a Division by Lord Balfour of Burleigh, I shall vote with him.
§ THE EARL OF CLANWILLIAM
My Lords, I should like to say a word or two as an active Back Bencher who has been in the House for a good many years. I have found no difficulty whatsoever in putting down Motions on any subject that I wished to discuss. The noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, says this is only a very little rule, but I am much afraid that if we once start with a little rule it will become a very large rule. My fear is that although the time is limited in the present recommendation to a quarter of an hour, when once that rule is put on the book there will be a tendency on the part of noble Lords to say that it does not give sufficient time. The quarter of an hour may then be increased to half an hour and would go on until before long questions would be taking up an hour. That I say, without hesitation, would become an intolerable nuisance in your Lordships' House. The method of conducting our business has grown up by custom and I have never heard of any trouble or difficulty about the asking of any questions. I should regret enormously such an innovation as is proposed.
§ VISCOUNT BUCKMASTER
My Lords, at this late hour I will not detain you more than a few moments. I feel unable to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, that this is a matter of slight importance. I feel that our privileges and our method of procedure are of importance not only in this House but outside it. We should be reluctant either to curb or to curtail them. The question then arises whether the starred question does serve a useful purpose. Is it a benefit to our procedure; is it a benefit to the country that we should ask questions in this way? With but a limited experience of starred questions—though that experience, if I may say so, is of a successful nature—I feel that they do serve a useful purpose. Therefore I should be sorry to see starred questions eliminated. My noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh does not, however, propose that, but merely proposes that the Committee should further consider its findings, which have not, so far as I can see, proved acceptable to your Lordships.
The starred question does seem to me to have certain advantages over the other form of question. It enables the Minister to know that there will not be any lengthy debate; nor do I see that it is necessary 417 for him to remain in the House during lengthy proceedings in order to answer the question. I should not consider it in the least discourteous if he delegated that function to some other person and I do not think your Lordships would disagree with that view. While none of us in these matters seek any personal publicity, we may at times feel it necessary to draw public opinion to a matter. The gentlemen of the Press in the exercise of their discretion have occasionally—I say occasionally—called attention to a starred question which has served a very useful purpose. It has not happened in my experience that a written answer to a question has received the same attention at their hands. If the starred question is of use, as I think it is, there remains to consider the proposed machinery. That I do not propose to examine very closely. My noble friend Lord Balfour of Burleigh has put with force and with effect arguments, which to my mind cannot be resisted, for saying that the proposed new machinery will function only with great difficulty and perhaps with some danger to those who seek to work it. I hope, therefore, your Lordships will further consider the matter, and that that consideration will result in the starred question being retained but on the same lines as at present
THE EARL OF LTSTOWEL
My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like, as a member of the Select Committee on Procedure, to reply very briefly to two points. The Lord Chairman of Committees, who unfortunately as he said was absent from the proceedings of the Committee owing to ill-health, suggested that it would be a good thing, so that the Committee may consider the question of giving precedence to starred questions rather more exhaustively, that the matter should be referred back. I should like to remind the House that the Select Committee has been dealing with this matter over a period of three months, that it appointed a Sub-Committee which subsequently reported to the main Committee, and that the problem was considered by the Sub-Committee as well as by the full body of the Select Committee.
THE EARL OF ONSLOW
I should like, if I may be allowed to interrupt my noble friend, to point out that what I said was that I should be happier in my own mind 418 if I could have the opportunity of listening to further arguments on both sides as I was not present when the Committee sat and did not know anything about it. I did not suggest that other noble Lords on the Committee had not made up their minds. I said that I would like to know more about the matter before giving any definite opinion.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
I appreciate the noble Earl's correction. If I may, I would make it plain that what I intended to point out was that the matter has been very exhaustively considered by the Committee to which the House originally referred the problem, and during the course of our deliberations the point made by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, was gone into with considerable care. I should like the House to know that the other side of the difficulty to which the noble Marquess alluded was taken account of. He said that at the end of the period of a quarter of an hour, there might be great difficulty in calling to order a noble Lord who trespassed beyond that period of time. In regard to that the first point is this, that unless the number of starred questions is very considerably increased, the period of a quarter of an hour will not even be taken up by this particular item on our agenda. If the starred questions only continue at their present number, we shall finish them before the quarter of an hour is up on most Tuesdays.
The second point is that if in certain weeks the starred questions did fill up the limited time allotted to them, it is extremely improbable that a noble Lord would trespass beyond the limit. That happens very rarely, but on those very rare occasions I think there is a traditional procedure which will be in your Lordships' minds, for your Lordships will remember that only a few weeks ago, when the noble Duke, the Duke of Bedford, rather strayed from the subject which he was discussing, the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, rose from the Liberal Benches and expressed a protest, to which the noble Duke listened. The debate then continued on the right lines. That, I am sure the noble Marquess and other noble Lords will agree, is the procedure always adopted when any noble Lord inadvertently breaks the traditional rules of the House. It is not a question of calling upon the Clerk of the Parliaments or upon 419 the Lord Chancellor. Any senior member of the House may get up and draw a noble Lord's attention to a breach of of any written or unwritten rule. I merely wish to point out that that particular difficulty—the one referred to by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury—had been considered by the Committee.
THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (VISCOUNT CRANBORNE) (Lord Cecil)
My Lords, the Motion which stands in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, has, I think your Lordships will all agree, led to a most valuable discussion. It has enabled the views of members of the House to be expressed, and they certainly have been expressed with considerable emphasis on both sides. It is natural that there should be considerable interest in this subject, for, as Lord Buckmaster said, noble Lords are extremely, and very naturally, jealous of the traditions of this House, and they would, therefore, wish to examine with the most anxious care any suggested alterations or modifications in our procedure. This proposal to have a fixed period for starred questions is, of course, not new. It has come before your Lordships' House again and again in recent times, and it has always been evident, at least during the time that I have been a member of your Lordships' House, that it is a proposal of a somewhat controversial character. Therefore, on the last occasion on which the matter was raised it was very properly decided to submit it again to the Select Committee on Procedure, and to ask for a report.
As I think will be evident from speeches which have been made here to-day, in the Committee, as in the House, considerable divergencies of view were expressed, and, eventually, as is the usual custom in this country, a compromise was reached. It was a compromise which I imagine was not entirely satisfactory to anybody, but it represented the greatest common measure of agreement. That compromise, which was recommended by the Committee to the House, is the proposal which has been under discussion to-day. The noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, and other noble Lords who have spoken have stressed the difficulties attaching to even this limited proposal. They have suggested that it was not necessary, and they have pointed out the falsity of any 420 analogy between the procedure in another place and the procedure in this House in view of the fact, of course, that there is here no Speaker who can control our business or limit the scope of supplementaries. Lord Balfour of Burleigh also pointed out—and I am grateful to him for doing so—the embarrassment that might be caused to the Leader of the House. He painted a terribly black picture of the situation in which the Leader would be likely to be placed. The issues were further analysed by my noble relative, the Marquess of Salisbury, in the light of his long experience both as a member of the House of Commons and of your Lordships' House. On the other side, it has been urged with very great force that some question time at the beginning of business would be for the convenience both of noble Lords and of Ministers concerned.
I feel, if it is not presumptuous to say so, that it may be of use to noble Lords if I say a word, as I have the privilege of being the Leader of your Lordships' House. I must confess that I find myself in a position of some difficulty. Like every other noble Lord who has spoken in this debate, I hold very strong views personally on the subject, but I accepted the compromise as other noble Lords accepted it, and I certainly do not intend to go back on anything which was decided at the Committee. If the matter were pressed to-day I would support the proposal which has been put before your Lordships. At the same time I do think—and I think I shall have the agreement of other noble Lords in this—that it would be extremely unfortunate if a Division were to take place on this particular subject. Of course we are all accustomed to Divisions on political subjects. We vote, according to our convictions, constantly upon them. But—and this has been stressed to-day—the issue here is of rather a different kind. It concerns our day-to-day affairs and the conduct of the business of this House.
Our business is regulated, as has already been said, on a basis which I think exists in no other legislative assembly in the world. Broadly speaking, we have no rigid rules and regulations. What governs our procedure, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is the general consensus of opinion of the House, which we absorb, as it were, through the pores of 421 our skin. It is amazing that this system should work, but it certainly does. It works, however, only because there is a general determination not to push matters to extremes.
In this case, I think it is evident that, if a change were made, it would be at any rate against the wishes of a large minority. Of the noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, three were in favour of the proposal and six against it, while three other noble Lords who spoke, all members of the Committee, gave a sort of tepid acquiescence. I feel that to adopt this proposal immediately, in the face of the debate which has taken place, would hardly be in harmony with the spirit of your Lordships' House. I therefore suggest to your Lordships, though with all diffidence, that it might be wiser, in view of what has been said, to refer the matter back to the Select Committee for further consideration, in the light of to-day's discussion. I confess that I think that it would be very difficult for many noble Lords to accept the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, exactly as it stands, because he asks for a reference back "with an instruction that precedence be not given to starred questions." That completely prejudges the issue, and, if you put in that instruction, there is no point in referring the matter back, because there is no possibility of its proper reconsideration. If the words which I have quoted were omitted, however, I think that the remainder of the Motion might be acceptable in all quarters of the House. I suggest that it would clearly be right, in the light of to-day's debate, that the Select Committee should give this matter further consideration, and with all deference I submit that suggestion to your Lordships.
LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
My Lords, I am highly gratified by the amount of support which my Motion has received, and particularly by the support of my noble friend Lord Davies, whom I quite expected to find one of my most implacable enemies.
LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
In that case, it is all the more generous of the noble Lord to promise to support me on a Division. I think the noble Lord, Lord Addison, misunderstood what I said, and I sincerely hope that when he reads what I said in the Official Report he 422 will find that I did not animadvert in any way on the contributions made by noble Lords who have come from another place. What I said was that it takes them a little time to become conscious of the atmosphere in which we work, and to adapt themselves to that atmosphere.
The noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, gave an analysis of the speeches, and said that there were only three against my Motion—that is to say, in favour of the Report—and that there were six against the proposal in the Report, whilst three noble Lords gave it what he called "tepid acquiescence." Those three noble Lords are all very important members of the House and of the Committee, and their rapture was certainly highly modified. I should hardly have thought that they even acquiesced, although most of them said that if it went to a Division they would have to support the compromise. On the whole, I think that the wish of your Lordships' House has been very clearly indicated. The noble Viscount said that it is unsuitable to press my Motion to a Division, and I would not dream of going against his expressed desire. In those circumstances, I think that I had better ask leave to omit the words "with an instruction that precedence be not given to starred questions and," and ask leave to move my Motion in that amended form.
§ LORD ADDISON
My Lords, I wish to say, as a member of the Committee, that the Committee have had this matter before them, off and on, for months, or at any rate for a long time. It is true that for a long time we were not able to meet, but we did meet and hammered this out, and not a word has been said this afternoon which was not taken into account by the Committee. The matter was then referred to a Sub-Committee, which reported back to the main Committee, which then considered the report and finally made this Report to your Lordships' House. I cannot imagine that any useful purpose whatever will be served by asking the Committee to go over this matter again, if something new had been said this afternoon, there might be a reason for doing so, but I think it is true to say that nothing fresh has been mentioned.
LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
Will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt him? He says that nothing new has been said in this debate. It may be quite true that 423 nothing new to the Committee has been said, but I think that there has been something new to the House, because I have not heard the question debated in this form before.
§ LORD ADDISON
My Lords, what I am saying is that there is nothing new in the contentions made by the noble Lord or by any other member of your Lordships' House—nothing, that is, which has not been considered by the Committee. I think that that is a true statement. The time, how long it would take, who would call members to order, whether it should be one day or more—all those matters were considered in one form or another by the Committee, and I cannot see the slightest use in referring this Report back. For my part, I regard this as an arrangement which represented a common measure of agreement. No one is ever satisfied with a compromise, which does not give people all that they want, but that is the nature of a compromise, and I think it would be a very bad precedent indeed to accept this Motion, even in the modified form which has been suggested. So far as I am concerned, I should certainly not be a party to it.
My Lords, would not the sense of the House be met if the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, withdrew his Motion, and the Lord Chairman then put the First Report to the House, and the House negatived the Report?
I do not think that there is anything which I can add, but in answer to what Lord Addison has just said, I should have thought that there was a new factor for the Committee—namely, the views expressed in this House.
The noble Lord, Lord Addison, looks upon the Committee as an independent entity, but it is a Committee of this House, and views have been expressed in this House which modify the situation with which the Committee was faced last time. The noble Lord may not feel that, and may wish to go to a Division, but I should have thought that the House did feel that what has been said in this debate makes a case for further consideration by the Committee.
§ LORD ADDISON
My Lords, I have no desire to be difficult, as the noble Viscount knows, but this matter was discussed before it was referred to the Committee, and the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour, and I and other noble Lords spoke about it. I know that the Committee is a Committee of the House, and defers to the House as such, but I cannot think of anything fresh in the arguments adduced, as compared with what was said before the matter was considered by the Committee.
LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
My Lords, I have asked the leave of the House to move the Motion in the amended form.
§ Original Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure of the House be referred back to the Select Committee to consider and report on the desirability of continuing the practice of starred questions in this House.—(Lord Balfour of Burleigh.)
§ On Question, Whether the Motion shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 24; Not Contents, 9.425
|Simon, V. (Lord Chancellor.)||Buckmaster, V.||Clanwilliam, L. (E. Clanwilliam.) [Teller.]|
|Salisbury, M.||Mersey, V.||Denman, L.|
|Wimborne, V.||Hemingford, L.|
|Brooke and Warwick, E.||Jessel, L.|
|Lucan, E.||Balfour of Burleigh, L. [Teller.]||Monkswell, L.|
|Macclesfield, E.||Sherwood, L.|
|Munster, E.||Bingley, L.||Stanmore, L.|
|Onslow, E.||Blackford, L.||Templemore, L.|
|Bruntisfield, L.||Trent, L.|
|Addison, L.||Latham, L.||Southwood, L.|
|Fairingdon, L.||Nathan, L. [Teller.]||Strabolgi, L.|
|Hare, L. (E. Listowel.) [Teller.]||Rankeillour, L.||Winster, L.|
§ Resolved in the affirmative, and Motion agreed to accordingly.