THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. A. J. BALFOUR, Manchester, E.) moved the following Resolutions standing in his name:—
That, so soon as the Committee of Supply has been appointed and Estimates have been presented, the business of Supply shall (until it be disposed of) be the first Order of the Day on Friday, unless the House otherwise order, on the motion of a Minister of the Crown moved at the commencement of public business, to be decided without Amendment or Debate.
Not more than 20 days, being days when the Speaker leaves the Chair, for the Committee of Supply without Question put, counting from the first day on which the Speaker so left the Chair under Standing Order No. 56, shall be allotted for the consideration of the Annual Estimates for the Army, Navy, and Civil Services, including Votes on Account, the Business of Supply standing first Order on every such day.
On the nineteenth of such allotted days, at 10 o'clock p.m., the Chairman shall proceed to put forthwith every Question necessary to dispose of the outstanding Votes in Committee of Supply; and on the 20th of such allotted days the Speaker shall, at 10 o'clock p.m., proceed to put forthwith every Question necessary to complete the outstanding Reports of Supply:
On the days appointed for concluding the Business of Supply, the consideration of such business shall not be anticipated by a Motion of Adjournment under Standing Order No. 17; nor may any dilatory Motion be moved on such proceedings; nor shall they be interrupted under the provisions of any Standing Order relating to the Sittings of the House:
Provided always, that the days occupied by the consideration of Estimates supplementary to those of a previous Session, or of any Vote of Credit, shall not be included in the computation of the twenty days. Provided also, that two Morning Sittings shall be deemed equivalent to one Three o'clock Sitting; and that, except in the case of a dissolution of Parliament or other emergency; the said twenty days shall be allotted so that the Business of Supply be concluded before the 5th of August.
He said: As the House is aware, a request was made to me yesterday to defer the main discussion of the Resolution until Monday, and the question then arose whether I should put off the whole Debate until Monday, or whether it was not more convenient for me to make a preliminary
statement, explaining the motive which the Government had in asking the House to accept this change in the Standing Orders. It may seem a rash thing to give three days' interval to hon. Gentlemen to consider what I have got to say, but on the whole I thought it would be better, because, so great is the confidence I have in the propriety of the proposals I am making,, that I cannot help thinking the more they are understood the more they will commend themselves generally to hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House. [Laughter.] I admit, of course, that the Leader of the Opposition was perfectly right when he said that this was a subject closely affecting the interests of private Members. It is a subject closely affecting the interests of private Members; but I will boldly say that, in my judgment, the result of this rule would not be to diminish the opportunities of private Members, but to augment them, and if the House will consent to the change I recommend, it will not have the effect of increasing the time available to the Government for legislation, but it will have the effect of enabling private Members to bring forward in that discussion of the Estimates, all those questions in which they are interested, and it will enable them to keep close control over the administrative action of the Government for the time being. The end we have in view is to improve the discussions in Supply. ["Hear, hear!"] Now, what are the objects of discussion in Supply? Many hon. Gentlemen have a kind of hazy notion that the object of discussion in Supply is to insure an economical administration of public money on the part of the Government. That is, I believe, an ancient and deeply rooted superstition, and it is a superstition that has absolutely no justification in the existing circumstances of Parliamentary Government. It may be asserted that there was a time in which you had on one side a jobbing and extravagant Government, and on the other side a critical and economical House of Commons, and it was very necessary, in order that a jobbing and extravagant Government might be kept in order, that a critical House of Commons should discuss Supply Vote by Vote, and every item of expenditure as proposed in the Votes laid on the Table of the
House. But those days are gone past. Whatever be the result of discussion in Supply, now as regards the expenditure of money, everybody knows that the result of Parliamentary discussion is never to diminish, but always to increase expenditure. [Laughter and cheers.] It is perfectly true that by our technical rules it is not within the competence of any one but a Minister of the Crown to move to increase a Vote, but though it is not competent for private Members to move to increase a Vote, it is competent for them, strange as it may seem, to move a reduction of a Vote in order that that Vote may be subsequently increased. [Laughter and cheers.] Hon. Gentlemen move that a smaller sum be introduced in the Estimates in order to drive the Minister of the day to promise that in subsequent Estimates a larger sum will be granted. Such is the paradox of the discussion in Supply. The real danger at the present day is not that the expenditure of the Government shall outrun the desires of the House of Commons, but that the desires of the House of Commons shall outrun the resources of the country. If, then, we are to accept, as I am sure every sober critic of our proceedings must accept, the general view which I have laid down—if, that is to say, we cannot lay the flattering unction to our souls that the result of discussion in Supply is to diminish expenditure, what useful function does it perform in our system of Parliamentary Government? In my opinion, the discussion in Supply fulfils a function even more important now than it did in the days of Hume, when the object was in the main criticism of expenditure rather than criticism of policy, for now, broadly, Supply alone affords private Members in this House that right of criticism, that constant power of demanding from the Government explanations of their administrative and executive action which, without Supply, can never be possessed, and which by no arrangement of Tuesdays and Fridays, under our present system, can possibly be given. Let the House consider what a system of anarchy our Tuesdays and Fridays is. The privilege of discussing abstract Motions on those days is highly prized by Members, and it is one which it is not desirable to take away; but we all know, also, that it constantly happens,
by the fortune of the ballot, that when a Motion is brought forward on Tuesday and Friday no one but the successful Mover fortunate in the ballot, takes the slightest interest in it [An HON. MEMBER: ''Prison-made goods.''], and as the evening advances the number of his audience gradually diminishes, until, about the dinner hour, a certain "count" is the foreseen result. In Supply the matter is different. In Supply the Government are bound to keep a House for their own success. Supply is an open platform on which every private Member can lay his views, not on abstract and academic questions, but on the concrete facts of daily administration. I think there is no department of our activity in which the whole House of Commons shows to less advantage than in discussing abstract Resolutions in the manner of the Oxford and Cambridge Unions. When practical men, will condescend to discuss, as practical men, the affairs of the Navy, Army, and Civil Service, some light is thrown, or may be thrown, on the course which the Government has taken, some modification of their policy may result, some enlightenment of public opinion may follow. I hope the House will, therefore, accept my first proposition, that, while Supply does not exist for the purpose of enforcing economy on the Government, it does exist for the purpose of criticising the policy of the Government, of controlling their administration, and bringing them to book for their policy at home and abroad. If that be the function of Supply—and a more Parliamentary function I cannot imagine—how is it carried out under our existing system? I am speaking, I imagine, to many Gentlemen who have not had any experience of this House except that brief and not wholly agreeable experience which we all went through last August; but if these new Members will consult with their more experienced friends, I am sure that they will come to the conclusion that the description I am about to give of our system is not in the least exaggerated. Every Government is under the belief—perhaps I ought to say under the illusion—that it is going to acquire great glory to itself by carrying out its legislative Programme. Every Opposition is equally under the belief—perhaps I ought to say under the illusion
—that by hampering the Government in carrying out that Programme it is dealing it, if not a mortal, at all events a serious blow. [A laugh.] The result as far as the Government is concerned, is that there is the greatest temptation—a temptation which is never resisted, as far as I know—to put off Supply to as late a date as possible; and there is great temptation on the part of private Members, which is also never resisted, so far as I know, to prolong the earlier Debates in Class I. to an inordinate length, so that really all the months of true Parliamentary vigour are expended, so far as Supply is concerned, in perfectly futile, empty, and foolish discussion, and the really important matters of criticism—matters on which the policy of the Government and country ought to be discussed—are frequently thrust away to the later days of August, or even of September. I gathered from the conversation that took place at question time, that hon. Friends of mine on this side of the House and on the other are quite ready to see every Friday devoted to Supply, but they are by no means prepared to say that Supply should be limited to Fridays. They are asking the Government to give up everything, and the Government is to get nothing. If the general feeling of the House is so strong against this proposal of mine that there seems no hope of carrying it, why, then, Sir, it shall be abandoned. [General cheers.] One half of it shall not be taken and the other half left. I certainly, speaking for my colleagues, and, I believe, speaking for every man who will ever hold the place I am now called upon to hold in the House, say that no Government will consent to give up Fridays, which might have been used for their legislative Programme——
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY
Yes; but Tuesdays and Fridays, under our existing practice, are always taken at a comparatively early period for the legislative work of the Government. No Government will give up that privilege unless they can, in return, look forward to some conclusion to the work of Supply, to some probability of bringing the labours of the Session to a close before the end of August or the beginning of September.
§ MR. JOHN DILLON (Mayo, E.)
The rule makes no change in that regard. The Government will still have the power to take Friday under the proposed new Rule.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY
Yes, Sir; the Government will undoubtedly have power to take Friday after a division under the new rule, but the Government would be obliged to do in the future what it has never been compelled to do in the past; it will have to give 20 days between the hours of 4 and 12 for the discussion of Supply, in addition to all the time taken up on the Appropriation Bill, the Supplementary Estimates of the preceding year, and the three days which are at least required before the Speaker is moved out of the Chair.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY
Twenty days will be given to the House entirely. It will be seen from what I have said that the great merit of the scheme is that it practically insures that private Members shall have an opportunity during the effective Parliamentary months of bringing forward really important questions that can be fairly discussed. They do not get that under the existing system: they would get it under the system I propose. The first objection I have stated is this, that if you allocate these twenty days in the manner proposed, the Government having it in their power to control the order in which Supply is discussed, Ministers could put off till the very end of the time the critical Votes, which they are afraid perhaps to have discussed, and the result would be that, after all, the really important questions would be gagged. Let me reply, in the first place, that I individually should have not the slightest objection to leaving it to a Committee of this House to determine the order in each Session in which the Estimates shall be brought forward. (Opposition cheers.) If the House desired it, we might leave this in the hands either of the Committee of Selection or of some other small Committee of unquestioned impartiality. I do not recommend that course, and for this reason: If you look back at our Parliamentary history you will see that no Government 729 is to be trusted in the distribution of the time when there is a conflict between its own business and other people's business. Of course, the Government always decides for its own business. But I have never yet heard of a Government which tried to manipulate the business of the House so as to avoid criticism. I go back to the days when I was Chief Secretary, when feeling ran much hotter than now, and Party passions were more violent. We had prolonged discussions on the Irish Estimates, but there was no attempt to fix Irish Estimates, at a time inconvenient to Irish Members. On the contrary, I am sure they would acknowledge that, whatever our faults may have been, we always endeavour, and any Government would always endeavour, to meet the convenience of important sections of the House. (Cheers.) I do not believe that among the many faults which Front Benches have, the fault of desiring to shirk criticism is one that can be charged against them. Therefore, my own personal advice would be to leave the decision of the order of the Estimates to the discretion of the Government and the Secretary to the Treasury. That will be more elastic than any Committee could be; I believe it would be more satisfactory and equally impartial. And I may here be permitted to declare at the outset of the discussion what is the method which I think ought to be adopted in dealing with the Estimates. I think our existing system has every fault which a system can possibly have. Among others, there is the fault of beginning with Class 1, which deals with, I think, Royal palaces, some trivialities [Irish laughter], some architectural trivialities [Cheers], which have nothing to do with the general policy of the country, and on which the general policy of the country cannot be raised. If there be a Republican in the House he might wish to raise the question of Republican institutions, but he cannot do it. Under Class 1 you can discuss nothing but drains, windows, roofs, and matters of that sort. Therefore, I should propose that we should always put first on every day Votes in Supply are taken some Vote of public interest and importance. [Cheers.] It will be observed that it is not necessary, and I suspect it is probably not desirable, that we should 730 lay it down that the discussion on that Vote must needs be finished before an other Vote comes on. Let us say that Thursday and Friday in a particular week are devoted to Supply. Let us suppose the Foreign Office Vote—the important Vote on which the foreign policy of the Government can be raised—is put down first on Thursday. Let us suppose, further, it goes over Thursday and Friday. The House will then have had an opportunity of discussing the foreign policy of the Government for two nights, and my own view would be that when the next Friday comes round, or the next day on which Supply is taken, we should not necessarily finish the Foreign Office Vote, but that some other class, raising some other subject of great interest, should have the first place. That practically is an impossible system if you manage your Votes as you do now. Under the proposed system it will be in our power to arrange the discussion of Foreign Affairs, the Army, the Navy, Ireland, education, and so on in a manner convenient to the House and to Members interested. Some hon. Gentlemen have supposed that we intend to devote Fridays alone to Supply, so that, in the case of Irish Estimates, Irish Members would be put to the inconvenience of coming over on successive Fridays, and going back to Ireland, it may be, in the interval. That is not a necessary part of our scheme at all. There is nothing whatever in the scheme to prevent a week or fortnight being continuously devoted to Supply. Of course, in the case of the Irish Members we should take care in the future as in the past to see that out of the 20 days time was allotted to them in the manner most convenient for their attendance and the continuous discussion of the questions in which they are interested. That brings me to the second objection I have heard against my scheme. That objection is that by the end of the 20 days a large number of Votes will remain undiscussed, and that when the guillotine falls it will be found that the expenditure of a vast sum of money has never really been under the consideration of the House at all. ["Hear, hear!"] Of course, that is true. I go further and say that the plan of always putting an important Vote at the beginning of a day's sitting will probably 731 increase the number of Votes that are not discussed, though it would make the Votes that are discussed far more important than at present. The House is well aware that, under the system under which we have been content to live so far, the number of Votes that are necessarily passed either undiscussed or with only a word of conversation in the small hours of the morning is very large indeed. I have not made out any elaborate statistics on the subject, but I find that in one sitting 26 Votes for the Civil Service and the Army and Navy were taken and £16,500,000 were voted in, 12 hours.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY
I take it from a speech—I believe of the hon. Gentleman himself—made on the subject of Supply in 1891. Then in 1894 it will be found that half the Votes for the Civil Service, representing £15,000,000, were passed without any discussion at all, and among them the Education and the Post Office Votes, involving an expenditure of £8,500,000.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY
My note is 1894. So the House will see there is really no difference in that respect between my plan and the present system. The only difference is, as I said before, that under my plan Votes not discussed will be unimportant and under the present plan they are too often important. The fourth objection I have to meet is the limit of the 20 days which I have suggested as the proper time in addition to the days spent in getting the Speaker out of the Chair and the time taken up by Supplementary Estimates and the Appropriation Bill. The House will find it very difficult, with the information at their disposal, adequately to criticise that estimate. A return has been prepared in which the number of days devoted to Supply is nominally set out, but it is wholly misleading, for the reason that any day on which Supply was discussed at all is put down as a day devoted to Supply, and therefore you would infer from it that a great deal more time was given to Supply in previous years than was actually the case. 732 I have had worked out, by a laborious calculation, the number of hours given to Supply, Votes on account, and the Report of Supply for the six years 1890–95, and I have divided the number of hours into eight-hour days, as it will be observed that my 20 days are 20 eight-hour days. The number of these days was—28 in 1890, 23 in 1891, eight in 1892, 27 in 1893, 19 in 1894, and 20 in 1895. It will be seen that, while some years are in excess of what I propose to give, others are in defect; but I wish the House to remember that in those eight-hour days are included many hours in which, practically, the time was thrown away, as the House was called upon to deal with Supply under conditions in which proper discussion was absolutely impossible. Assuming that the House is not in its best Parliamentary form after the 5th of August, I find that in 1890 no fewer than seven days were given to Supply after that date; in 1893, 14 days; in 1894, three days; in 1895, ten—all after the 5th of August. I find, further, that, of the time which I have stated was given to Supply, a number of hours equivalent to 2½ days in 1890, two days in 1891, 1½ in 1892, one in 1894, and two in 1895 were spent by this House after midnight. If you abstract these hours from the number of eight-hour days, you will find that the 20 days I propose is a very liberal allowance, if in the future we are not asked for more elaborate discussion than we have been content with in the past. The last objection with which it is necessary for me to deal is one of principle; it is, perhaps, one which affects some hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House more powerfully than any of the others. The very idea of bringing Supply to a summary termination—of guillotining Supply, as the phrase is—is repellent to them [Cheers from both sides of the House], and they are very reluctant to make what they consider so important a change in our rules. I am the last person to undervalue that objection; but I hope it will not be raised in this House by any of those hon. Gentlemen whose love of Parliamentary institutions does not induce them to stay here during the dog days in order to fight Supply after the 12th. [Laughter and cheers.] There is a not inconsiderable class of hon. Members who are anxious to maintain 733 the liberties of the House, provided those liberties inflict no sacrifice upon them. ["Hear, hear!"] I can well conceive that, if my resolution should be rejected by the aid of these hon. Gentlemen, when next August comes round and they have vanished from the scene, and are enjoying themselves on grouse moors or golf links [Laughter and cheers], they will, when they take up the morning paper and see that the business of the House was Supply and that the House was ''left sitting'' at three o'clock in the morning, reflect with satisfaction that they have contributed to this happy result [Laughter], and that they fought gallantly for the privileges of the House when the new Rule was discussed, and they will have the double happiness of enjoying the country and reflecting that their friends are not enjoying themselves in the same way. [Laughter and cheers.] Criticism on my plan from hon. Gentlemen who suffer from the existing plan I will listen to with respectful sympathy, but criticism from the other hon. Gentlemen should not excite either respect or sympathy. I remember that when the late Mr. Smith proposed as a new rule that we should adjourn for an hour-and-a-half for dinner he met with very great opposition, not only from hon. Gentlemen opposite, but also from Members of the House of standing and influence on his own side; the rule was accordingly rejected and the House continued to sit during the dinner hour. But when the hon. Gentlemen whose opposition contributed to the rejection of the proposed rule were asked to stay here through the dinner hour they all with one accord began to make excuse [Laughter], and said that, though it was extremely proper that the House should sit during the dinner hour, it was not at all proper that they should be in the House. Leaving the various classes of critics who object strongly to the proposals, let me come to the objections themselves. I do not believe there are two opinions as to the inexpediency of applying what is controversially known as the "gag" to legislative proposals. In the past both parties have been responsible in circumstances which they deemed to be of overmastering exigencies for gagging discussion upon very important measures—it is not for me to say whether with 734 adequate excuse or not; but both parties have, with the utmost reluctance, resorted to the practice of bringing discussion upon Bills to a sudden termination. It may be asked whether there is in this matter any ground for distinction between Supply and Bills. I think there is the widest distinction between Supply and Bills. First, it is not necessary that a Bill should pass in any Session; but it is absolutely necessary that Supply should be passed. Secondly, a Bill is for the most part, and always to a certain extent, a novelty; it provides for something new to be done; but Supply, with insignificant variations, which are seldom variations of principle, is the same from year to year and almost from generation to generation. However valuable criticism in Supply may be, it hardly ever results in the alteration of an estimate. Of course we all know there have been exceptions, and Governments have, as happened last year, been beaten on Supply. The House knows that in whatever shape Supply is introduced in that shape it will pass. But in the case of a Bill there never has yet been an important Bill brought forward by even the strongest Government in which the result of the discussion of the various stages has not been profoundly to modify the structure and sometimes even the principle of the measure. Then there is a third and even more important distinction. When you pass a Bill you make a permanent alteration in the laws of the country. You put upon the Statute Book a measure which is bound to influence the history of your country until it is repealed. But Supply deals with annual expenditure, and what Parliament has done in 1895 it can reverse in 1896. Supply is just for a year and a year only; and therefore, in this third respect there is the greatest difference between Bills and Estimates. But, Sir, in addition to these arguments there is the further argument which I must earnestly press upon those who are influenced by the objection which I am now endeavouring to meet. I ask, is there after all so wide a distinction between the guillotine proposed by us and, the actual method by which Supply is now brought to an end; and, if there is a difference, is it a difference in favour of the prevailing practice? Sir, the 735 difference between the guillotine and the rack. [Laughter.] You bring Supply to an end, but you only bring it to an end by applying such an amount of physical torture to the persons engaged that the discussion ceases to go on. [Laughter.] Misery and exhaustion—these are the methods you now adopt through August in order to bring discussion of Supply to a close. Is it not more dignified and less painful to have an automatic process by which on a reasonable date and after reasonable discussion an end could be put to Debates which all must desire to close? ["Hear, hear!"] The public outside this House know little of what goes on here in those mysterious hours of the morning when the unhappy Administration of the day is trying to finish the work of Supply. [''Hear, hear!"] The expenditure of temper, the irritation of nerves, and the waste of tissue [Laughter] which go on; the self-control which is required on the one side and the heroic endurance which is exhibited on the other would move the admiration possibly of the outside world if the outside world knew it; and whether it would move their admiration or not it would certainly excite their pity. [Laughter.] I cannot conceive why we should tolerate the further continuance of a system so absurd. [Cheers.] I ask those who have gone through it—and most of us who are old Members and do not pair on August 1 have gone through it—I ask them whether they think any possible public object is served by this suffering of those—some of them at least—the most unoffending of God's creatures. [Laughter.] For my own part I absolutely deny that it contributes either to the dignity or to the liberties of this House to require the Government and the Opposition—rather the small remnant of the Opposition who linger in this House after the middle of August—to go through this melancholy tragedy year after year without Irving some rational and reasonable remedy. [Cheers.] The House will now understand the main grounds on which I venture to ask it with all earnestness to adopt what I think is this great reform. Let it be understood that it will not increase the amount of available Government time for legislation. It will not curtail, but largely increase the privileges of private Members. It will, 736 I most earnestly hope and firmly believe, have the effect of shortening our inordinately long Sessions, and will give even the hardest worked of us some chance of enjoying, at all events, the end of an English summer. It will, beyond question, improve the discussion of Supply, and increase the control which this House has over the administrative action of the Government; it will give to private Members much-desired opportunities of criticism, and it will add dignity and importance to our Debates. For these reasons I earnestly trust that, irrespective of Party, we shall do our best to carry through, on an early day, if not this Resolution in its exact terms, at all events a resolution not substantially different from it. [Loud cheers.]
§ On the motion of the FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY the Debate on the Resolutions was adjourned till Monday next.