§ Motion made, and Question proposed—"That the Proceedings on any Private Business set down for consideration at 8.15 this evening by direction of the Chairman of Ways may be entered upon at any hour, and be not interrupted under any Standing Order regulating the sittings of the House."—(Mr. Asquith.)1776
§ MR. STUART WORTLEY (Sheffield, Hallam)
said he understood that notice was rendered necessary by Standing Order 8. It was a Motion which might be put to very questionable uses. The Standing Order was rather new, and it might be serious to suspend it so soon after it was made. He thought it would be justified if not to help these Bills forward would be to inflict any loss on the parties concerned, but it must be remembered that they were going to have an Autumn Session, and this was a case of a Provisional Order Bill in which the expense was incurred on the local inquiries, and it was not likely to be increaed by delay at this stage. What he said applied to four Bills, and he was a total stranger to all of them, and in respect to three of them which had come from the other House he was not given to understand that there was any object to their being put forward; but as regards the fourth, information reached him which he thought required to be answered to the effect that it had gone forward with such rapidity that the Report Stage was taken on 27th July, consideration on 28th July, and that it stood for Third Reading on 29th July—yesterday, without the opponents to the Bill, who were substantial and important, having an opportunity of making themselves acquainted with the Amendments made. He understood that the Amendments had not been printed and circulated, and it was quite possible that substantial injustice might be done by this exceptional measure of putting forward the Bill. He thought some reason should be shown for this special procedure, and that they ought not to have a Motion made without some explanation being given.
§ MR. SWIFT MACNEILL (Donegal, S.)
said it was refreshing for him to find himself in thorough accord with the right hon. Gentleman who had just spoken, and he thought the Premier himself should treat the House more fairly in this respect. The Prime Minister, in asking the House that there should be only a limited time for the discussion of the action of certain Government spending departments and executive departments like the Home Office, said that the House would have full opportunity of discussing the matters on the Second Reading of the Appropriation Bill, which was the only time when a private Member, with 1777 possibly a fad of his own, could make himself heard, and now what happened? Here were these Bills, private Bills, introduced under an order the like of which he never remembered. It seemed that the Chairman of Committees could intervene at any time and say that private business might begin and go on as long as they liked. That was not a proper or a right way to deal with private Members, but there was something more. What was the necessity for the Motion? They were to have an Autumn Session. These Bills were set down for Second Reading, and therefore they would not come to a completion one minute before the proper and ordinary time. The Motion was only a contrivance to take a very considerable slice of the miserable portion of time allotted to private Members; while at the same time that portion of time was promised to be generously and even excessively given if hon. Members would submit, as they did on the previous night, to allow the Home Office and other Votes to be discussed in two hours and ten minutes. It was in the belief that they would have ample time to edge in a word that day that the House permitted that, and now, on private Members' day, the opportunity was taken from them. If he had even one person only to tell with him, he would divide on the Question.
§ THE PRIME MINISTER AND FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. ASQUITH,) Fifeshire, E.
I quite agree that this is an exceptional Motion, and that it ought to be justified by exceptional reasons, but I think the reasons which induced the Government to put it down and to move it ought to commend themselves to the House. The three Bills which are appointed for consideration at 8.15 p.m. by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means are all Electricity Supply Bills connected with the Metropolis. These three Bills are absolutely cognate in their subject matter, and to a very large extent the same considerations apply to the discussion of their merits on the Second Reading with regard to any one of the three. They were put down for Monday, but we thought it undesirable to interfere with the allotted days for the discussion of Supply, and it was for that reason that they were postponed until to-night. I am told that they stand or fall upon very much the same argu- 1778 ments, and that it will be a waste of time to take them separately, and it was for that reason that we propose to suspend the operation of the new rule, which would prevent any one of these Bills being entered upon for discussion after 9.30 p.m. A further reason for the Motion I have put down is that the suspension of the eleven o'clock rule only applies to Government business, and therefore it was necessary, in the event of the discussions on these Bills continuing after eleven o'clock, that special provision should be made. It was suggested by the hon. Gentleman who spoke last that the Bills might be postponed till the Autumn Session, but I am told that that would be a source of great inconvenience to all the parties concerned. If the Bills are now read a second time they will in the beginning of the Autumn Session be sent upstairs and considered by a Committtee, and having regard to the magnitude of the interests involved, the long delay that has already taken place, and the importance of the thorough discussion of all the details, I believe it is the universal opinion of all the parties interested that we should get the decision of the House on the merits of the Bills before we rise for the holidays. The other point raised was with regard to a Bill which stands on a different footing, the Potteries Provisional Orders Bill. The only reason, I am told by my right hon. friend the President of the Local Government Board, why this Bill is put down and included in the scope of my Motion, is that it is a convenience that we should get a clean print of the measure now, so that between now and October the amended Bill can be printed. However, if it is objected to, the Third Reading can be taken in October. The main point is in regard to the three Electrical Bills, and I hope, as far as they are concerned, the House will agree to the Motion.
§ MR. WALTER LONG (Dublin, S.)
said that it was not in regard to the merits of these Bills that they took objection to the procedure which the Government proposed to adopt. It was practically impossible for the House to come to a just decision upon the merits of private Bills. They really depended, not upon speeches made or general cases advanced in the House, but upon the evidence given before the Committee, and one of the objects which his right hon. 1779 friend had in view in moving the Standing Order governing the conduct of private Bills was to give the greatest possible incentive to what he would call the settlement out of Court of difficulties between contending parties on a private Bill. The step the Government were taking prejudiced to a certain degree the step which the Leader of the Opposition took, which had always been regarded as one of the greatest and most beneficial reforms in regard to the passing of private Bills. It was not at all difficult, if anybody desired to do so, to delay the progress of a Bill without doing anything improper. Once it became understood that a private Bill had only to be delayed in its progress in order to obtain advantages denied to the promoters of other Bills during the Session, then the House would realise that the change proposed was a very serious one in the system of private Bill procedure. The Prime Minister, the other day, in reply to the hon. and learned Member for Waterford said, in regard to the time which had been given for Supply, that the hon. and learned Member might rely upon it that no precedent was being created by the giving of less time for the discussion of the Irish Estimates. But the most powerful Prime Minister of recent years with a vast majority behind him could not possibly prevent a precedent being created if he took a step never taken before and the House sanctioned it. There were no special circumstances which justified this Motion, which, if pressed, would make a serious innovation in private Bill procedure which might be extended with disastrous results in future Sessions. The House had been told that there were three Electric Bills, but he himself was given to understand that there was considerable difference between them, and that the arguments used for and against the first need not necessarily apply to either of the others. The Prime Minister had stated that the first Bill might last until 9.30 p.m. and that the other Bills would not be taken, and that, therefore, there could not possibly be any objection to this Motion being accepted. But let the House mark one thing. There was always the indefeasible right of the House to debate any subject on the Second Reading of the Appropriation 1780 Bill. Many questions which might give rise to considerable debate would be raised by hon. Members, and there was litle enough time for their discussion of the Second Reading if the Appropriation Bill was to be carried in one sitting. The right hon. Gentleman said the private Bill might go on till 9.30 p.m. That estimate might be correct, but if after that time they proceeded with Bills raising quite different debates, what time would be left for a discussion of the Government's general policy, which the House had a right to discuss, and which could only be discussed on this occasion? In his opinion a Motion of this kind ought only to have been moved after full notice had been given of it so that the whole House might know what they were doing. Not only should notice have been given by placing the Motion on the Paper some days previously, but distinct warning should have been given through the usual channels that a new procedure was to be adopted. In these circumstances he felt it was impossible that this Motion should pass without challenge, and he should certainly when the Question was put from the Chair, vote against it on the ground that it was a serious innovation in the procedure of the House, which had not been justified by any of the arguments of the right hon. Gentleman.
§ MR. ASQUITH
said he had listened with attention and he need not say with great respect, to what the right hon. Gentleman had said. He could only say that he had proposed the Motion in the belief that it was consonant with the general wish and opinion of the House. But the Government did not intend to use their majority to take away the liberty of private Members in the exercise of a right which they at present possessed. He had been of opinion that this was a question of the general convenience of hon. Members, but after the appeal made to him by the right hon. Gentleman he did not feel disposed to press the question. The result would be that the first Bill would come on that evening, but he hoped that the discussion would not be prolonged. Afterwards they would resume the debate on the Appropriation 1781 Bill. He was very sorry that this should be so, because he was afraid that there would be a certain amount of delay in dealing with an urgent question. But on behalf of the Government he would try to make that delay as short as possible by putting the other two Bills down at the opening of the autumn sittings. He would, therefore, withdraw his Motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.