HC Deb 26 May 1908 vol 189 cc975-91

I now beg to move the Resolution which stands in my name on the Notice Paper, namely, "That the Proceedings on the Reports of the Committee of Ways and Means and Committees authorising the expenditure of Public Money, other than the Committee of Supply, may be entered upon at any hour after Eleven o'clock, though opposed, and shall not be interrupted under the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House)." This is a very old practice of the House, and I think for the five or six years before 1900 it was regularly passed without discussion or division. In 1900 it was again moved by the right hon. Gentleman the- present Leader of the Opposition, then the Leader of the House, and passed in the same way. It was opposed for the first time in 1901, and carried on a division after a debate. In 1902 it was not proposed. In 1903 it was proposed again, and carried without a division or a discussion. In 1905 it was carried after a snort discussion on a division. The present Parliament has not vet resorted to it. The object is to give facilities to the Report stage of these expenses Resolutions, with which hon. Members are so familiar, and which are now of growing frequence. There are very few Bills which this Government introduces, that is, which fall within the sphere of social reform, which do not involve a Resolution in Committee affecting, whether great or small, a charge upon the Exchequer in connection with the enactment of the measure. Our present machinery in this respect is undoubtedly of the most cumbrous kind possible. I am not complaining of it for the moment; I think everybody desires that it should be simplified and improved. In order to show what a very small curtailment of the opportunities and powers of discussion the passing of this Sessional Order will involve, I may point out that in the case of everyone of these Resolutions, in fact, it is found that there are no less than six possible stages. First of all, there is the Resolution in Committee authorising the expenditure; then there is the Report of the Resolution, which, as proposed by this Order, is capable of being taken after eleven o'clock; thirdly, the Second Reading of the Bill to which the Resolution refers; then the Committee stage of the Bill, the Report stage of the Bill, and the Third Reading; so that no one can say that the effect of re-adopting this which for many years was regarded as part of the settled procedure of the House can be in the slightest degree a curtailment of the opportunities of hon. Members to criticise the financial provisions involved in these measures. It so happens that this year there is an exceptionally large number of such Bills—I think about six or seven, quite apart from the Budget Resolutions. The Budget Resolutions originate in Committee of Ways and Means and there are some six or seven Bills for which the Government are responsible, and as to which it is desirable that this stage should be proceeded with without undue delay, I may give one illustration, and that is the Children Bill, a non-controversial measure which hon. Members in all quarters of the House feel a real anxiety to pass. And there are other and similar measures. I submit to the House that we should revert in this respect to the traditional and convenient procedure, which would to some extent simplify the discussion of these matters, without in any way substantially preventing the House from having full opportunity for discussion. I beg to move.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Proceedings on the Reports of the Committee of Ways and Means and Committees authorising the expenditure of Public Money, other than the Committee of Supply, may be entered upon at any hour after Eleven o'clock, though opposed, and shall not be interrupted under the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House)."—(Mr. Asquith.)

SIR F. BANBURY (City of London)

said the right hon. Gentleman had very rightly given them various precedents for this Motion, but he had omitted, he was sure inadvertently, the most important precedent, that of 1904, when at the request of Mr. Gibson Bowles, backed up by the Party opposite, the Government of which his right hon. friend sitting below him was the Leader, withdrew the Motion. When his right hon. friend brought forward the Motion again in 1905 the whole of the hon. and right hon. Members opposite, supported by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Waterford, went into the lobby against the proposal. The Prime Minister had told them that this proposal did not in any way interfere with the liberty of the House, because there were several stages which would enable them to discuss the financial proposals of the Government. The right hon. Gentleman had also reminded them that prior to 1900 there was no objection to this Resolution. But previous to 1900 the Supply Rule had not come into force; there was not at that time closure at the end of the Session. In 1902 the new Supply Rule came into operation, and at the end of the session Supply was guillotined.


This Resolution does not affect Supply at all.


said he was perfectly aware of that. The Resolution affected Resolutions originating in Committee of Ways and Means. Since 1902 there had been a still further curtailment of the powers of private Members by the right hon. Gentleman and his Government. He was referring to the Standing Committees. The right hon. Gentleman had taken the Children Bill as an illustration, and said that if the Resolution were passed the House would have so many opportunities for considering the money Resolution in relation to that Bill. They would have nothing of the sort. The Standing Committee would, but the Standing Committee consisted of seventy Members out of 670, and the only chance that the ordinary Member of the House would have of considering these Resolutions would be sometime after eleven o'clock at night, when the House was empty, when, as happened on the previous night, the vast majority of hon. Members—he did not in any way blame them—were desirous of going home, and when they listened with impatience to a discussion which in any way tended to prolong the hours of sitting. He agreed that the object of the eleven o'clock rule was that the House should rise at eleven. There was no point in that rule if, to suit the convenience of the Government, it was to be continually suspended. This Resolution over-rode the Standing Orders of the House by a Sessional Order. The Standing Orders had been fixed after great consideration and they were very difficult to alter. He did not think that they ought to be altered by a Sessional Order merely to suit the convenience of the Government. In 1904 Mr. Gibson Bowles objected to the Resolution. The hon. and learned Member for Waterford reminded the House how the— Taking of Supply after twelve o'clock in former years led to a great scandal, to the voting of enormous sums of money without discussion, as well as to remarkable scenes in the House. Everybody must agree that it was desirable that all financial business should betaken before midnight— —which would mean eleven o'clock now— and he hoped the hon. Member would press his opposition to a division. The hon. and learned Member was supported by the right hon. Member for West Islington, and the result was that the Motion was, by leave, withdrawn.


That was because, the Patronage Secretary to the Treasury knew perfectly well he had not a majority.


Of course, he accepted the statement of the right hon. Gentleman. He had never had a position in the Government, and therefore he was not aware of what went on behind the scenes. He now came to 1905, and what was said on the Motion then? A right hon. Gentleman who was now a Peer, the former Member for Dundee, opposed it very strongly; and the Member for West Islington said the Resolution was a bad one. He very much wished the right hon. Gentleman had been present in order to make his words fit the present Prime Minister, who was doing worse than his right hon. friend, because he had now his Standing Committees, to which all these Bills would be sent. The Prime Minister was depriving a large number of Members of facilities which they had in 1905 and which they had not now. Then the hon. Member for the Kirkcaldy Burghs in 1905 said that— As far as he was concerned, even it he was alone, he would vote against any proposal that the House should sit after twelve o'clock. That would now mean eleven o'clock. The hon. Gentleman who said that was conveniently absent. Several hon. Members were conveniently absent. Then the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy went on to move an Amendment— After the word 'may' to insert the words 'at least two days notice having been previously publicly given.' He thought himself that the present Motion was bad in view of the fact that the opportunities of hon. Members to discuss these Resolutions had been curtailed by the present Government. They had the Standing Committees and they had closure by compartments, which was another very important factor. He supposed, therefore, that it was hopeless to expect that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen when in power would be consistent in carrying out the views they had exressed when in opposition; but he thought it was right that they should have some notice given to them of when these measures were to come on. They all knew that to be in Standing Committee from eleven o'clock, often without an interval for luncheon, put a very great strain on hon. Members, and after having been in the House twelve hours, they were very much disinclined to stay after eleven o'clock. They should be informed beforehand that these measures were coming on so that they might make their arrangements. He would move the Amendment proposed in 1905 by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy—to insert after the word "may," the words, "at least two days notice having been previously publicly given."


seconded the Amendment.

Amendment proposed— In line 4, after the word 'may' to insert the words 'at least two days notice having previously been publicly given.'"—(Sir F. Banbury.)

Question proposed, "That those words be there inserted."


This is one of the occasions, I think not uncommon occasions, in which the present majority are showing that they are capable of forgetting all their own professions when in Opposition, and of usefully learning from those whom they then denounced. I congratulate them upon their conversion, though it is rather late. At all events, so far as I am concerned, I do not mean in Opposition to express different principles of Parliamentary management from those which I supported when I was responsible Leader of the House. But I would enforce one observation which fell from my hon. friend and colleague behind me and which had reference to the curtailment of the rights of private Members in respect of the Committee stage of almost all Bills, and the much more stringent and brutal application of the Closure by compartments which prevails under the present Government as compared with the last Government. This would give me, if I were so minded, a very plausible excuse for opposing the suggestion of the Government on the present occasion. The procedure in respect of these money Resolutions, in regard to Bills which involve expenditure, is unduly clumsy, and lends itself under the modern system to prolongation and repetition of debate, which is often superfluous and occasionally obstructive. I do not, therefore, propose to oppose the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion. As regards the Amendment that two full days notice should be given, it is quite true that that Amendment was moved from the other side and received a large measure of support, but when I occupied the place which the mover of the original Motion now occupies, I induced the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy to withdraw on my giving a pledge that the Government to the best of their ability would give the House information twenty-four hours before the Motion was brought on that such a procedure was intended. I cannot doubt that the Prime Minister will be prepared to give the House a pledge identical in terms with that which I gave in 1905, and if so, it is possible that my hon. friend may be prepared to withdraw his Amendment. Whether he will or will not follow the further example given by the then Opposition of insisting on dividing against the whole Resolution, of course I do not know. I should rather hope he will not, because in my view these discussions on money Resolutions do very little good, and I certainly think the existing procedure unamended by some such Standing Order as this is unduly prolonged and clumsy. I shall, therefore, support the Government if they give the pledge, although I am bound to repeat that the temptation to resist any further curtailment of our right of discussion of Bills is very great, in view of the enormous inroads upon our right of discussion on the later stage to which the right hon. Gentleman made no reference, but which we all know to our cost form part of the ordinary machinery of Parliamentary government adopted by the present Administration.


I quite recognise that the right hon. Gentleman had a right and was under a strong temptation to make the dialectical remarks with which he began his speech. Personally, I never took any part in these discussions, but I do not believe any of my hon. friends who did are in any way repentant of the course they then took. No doubt they were actuated by mixed considerations on the peculiar composition and complexity of which it is not at the moment necessary to enlarge. In regard to the Amendment, of course we could not accept it any more than the right hon. Gentleman could have accepted it in 1905, but I am quite ready to give the same assurance that he gave, that to the best of the Government's ability, they will give a day's notice of their intention to resort to this particular proceeding. Of course we must except from that assurance the proceedings of to-night. But in the future it is understood that, as far as the Government can do it—occasions may arise, of course, when it is impossible—we will do what the right hon. Gentleman undertook to do in the year 1905. With that assurance I hope the hon. Baronet will withdraw his Amendment.


said that under these circumstances, he would consent to withdraw the Amendment, but he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would really do his best to give effect to the assurance.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question again proposed.

LORD R. CECIL (Marylebone, E.)

thought that before they came to a decision on the Motion they ought to know what was the considered view of hon. Gentlemen opposite about its desirability. He understood that the then Opposition in 1905 expressed the view that the Motion was not justifiable. Now the Prime Minister explained that that was only said, as he understood it, in a Pickwickian sense. Did the Government still think it a desirable Motion when they proposed it, and an undesirable Motion when it was proposed by his right hon. friend? After all, their occupancy of the seats on the right of the Chair was not a permanency. Some day they might be on the left of the Chair. In that case, were they going to oppose Motions of this kind, or were they not? The House was entitled to know the genuine view of right hon. Gentlemen as to the desirability of Motions of this kind, and in the absence of such an expression he thought it would be the duty of his hon. friend to divide the House in order to have the votes of hon. Gentlemen opposite as some kind of testimony to their views.

LORD WILLOUGHBY DE ERESBY (Lincolnshire, Horncastle)

hoped the Motion would be divided against. There had been a principle growing up during the time right hon. Gentlemen opposite had had control of the government of the country of introducing a large number of measures involving considerable expense, and they could see for themselves by the Estimates that large sums of money were expended on commissioners and inspectors and others who had been appointed under those Bills. The right hon. Gentleman had told them that ample opportunity was given for discussing the whole of the money that was being spent, but he entirely differed. It might occur that there was only one occasion except after eleven o'clock when the salaries and expenses incurred by these Bills could be discussed, and that was on the Second Reading of the Resolution. If the report stage was taken after eleven o'clock, Members were impatient and wanted to go to bed, and there was not a fair discussion. The right hon. Gentleman said the matter could be discussed when the Bill was in Committee, but that was not the case, because many of these Bills were sent to Committees upstairs, and the greater part of the Members had no power to discuss the provisions. Then, when they got to the Report stage they had Closure by compartments and the Bill was rushed through the House. As regarded the spending of money, he did not believe in legislation which consisted merely in paying sums of money out of the Excheqeur to provide salaries for commissioners and inspectors. It was only on Money Resolutions that they had an opportunity of protesting against public money being squandered simply in providing comfortable berths, and he considered that those Resolutions ought to be kept in the House. If they went to a division he should certainly vote against the Motion.

MR. CROOKS (Woolwich)

agreed that they ought not to vote money in a hurry, but he had a lively recollection of what happened in. the last Parliament. It was a case of "When the Devil was ill," and the rest of it which everybody knew. Now they were in opposition they were repentant. It was a distinct advantage to have heard both sides of the story. He and his friends were very anxious to get home early, but they had no motor cars, and he had a long way to go. It nearly put him into 6s. 6d. the night before instead of 4d. But he and his colleagues wanted the work of the nation done when men were fresh and capable of doing it. He was once discussing with an eminent lawyer a problem which was difficult to him, and apparently more difficult to the lawyer, who asked how a man's mind could be expected to be clear at four o'clock in the afternoon. As they were all clear in the House they went on till the next afternoon. He had never seen a body of men behave so stupidly as that House could after twelve o'clock at night. He had seen both sides performing, so he knew. Why was it not possible for them to meet when they were fresh and ready for work? Why should the nation's work be postponed till late in the day for the convenience of the legal profession? Why should they not meet at ten in the morning? If he put down a Resolution that, until these money Resolutions were through, the House should meet at eight o'clock in the morning and leave off at eight o'clock in the afternoon, the whole country would be up in arms against the iniquity of interfering with the legal business of the nation. They would have the Judges against it. But that was the way out—to work in the daylight and not in the dark. He was sure some of the speeches which were made after eleven o'clock would never be made if they had a fresh Press Gallery to take down everything that was said. It would be helpful to the nation if they met earlier. He was in favour of the suspension of the Standing Orders, because he saw no other way of getting through the business.

MR. HAROLD COX (Preston)

said he was not aware of mixed motives which induced Members on the Treasury Bench to vote against a similar Motion some years ago, but he thought they were better than the motives which now actuated them, because it seemed to him that this was just one of those old-fashioned regulations that their ancestors devised to protect the taxpayer. Their ancestors discovered that it was the habit of Kings always to be trying to lay hold of taxpayers' money. It had ceased to be a habit of Kings and had become a habit of Cabinet Ministers. He belonged to a Party which was returned to the House pledged to economy, but since they had come into power they had behaved like a horde of hungry wolves. Scarcely a day passed but some Bill was promoted to lay hold of more of the taxpayers' money, mainly for what had been well described as the appointment of inspectors and other persons who got salaries for trying to restrain people from doing what otherwise they would do, for their advantage and for that of other people as well. At any rate they were constantly faced with a steady increase of expenditure. This was one of the few regulations of the House which made it difficult for the Government to get money, and he conceived it to be the primary duty of every Member of Parliament to prevent the Government getting money.

MR. AUSTEN CHAMBERLAIN (Worcestershire, E.)

I hope before this little discussion closes we shall have some further declaration of the Government's views of the subject than the rather cynical statement vouchsafed us by the Prime Minister. It amounts, as the noble Lord said, to nothing more than this, that when they are in office they have need of this Resolution and will vote for it, and when they are out of office they have no concern with the business of the House or the country, and accordingly, in order to obstruct proceedings of their opponents and the business of the House, they vote against it. I am not very much tempted to undo or recant the vote which I gave when I was in office and to vote against the Motion which I then supported. I am quite ready to support the Government in the course they have taken, on the one condition that they give us a declaration that in their opinion this is a proper course for a Government to take, and that they are not likely to oppose it in future. It is too much to ask that now they are in office they should be consistent with what they said in opposition. All I ask is that when they are next in opposition they should be fairly consistent with what they say now. I am tempted to say a few words more by the speech of the hon. Member for Preston. It is a speech closely resembling many to which I listened from Gentlemen opposite in the last Parliament—the general cry against extravagance or against increased expenditure, which may or may not be justified, but leading up to a conclusion which is not well founded. The conclusion is that every irritating little restriction which tends to spend more time over the grant of a sum of money is a preventive of extravagance and an encouragement to economy. The kind of restriction which is maintained by the necessity for a Resolution of this kind in Ways and Means, and then a report upon it in the House in order to found some minor provisions of a considerable Bill—that kind of use of our time does not serve the interests of economy, and never has prevented the expenditure of any considerable sum, and may have obstructed a useful reform which all parties were desirous of seeing effected. If the object is large the amount of time which you have to spend, and which is very often wasted, over these Resolutions becomes unimportant in comparison with the magnitude of the object you have in view. If you are spending £1,000,000 you can afford to spend an hour before or after eleven o'clock. You do not prevent the expenditure of money by restrictions and inconveniences of this kind, but you occasionally obstruct some reform because a minute fraction of the House opposed to the measure or, like the hon. Members opposite in 1905, actuated by mixed motives, which means a general desire to obstruct the business of the Government, use the opportunity which such a Resolution affords. It is worth while to spend an hour or two every session in discussing this same Resolution, because I do not think the necessity for it is likely to become less; or would it not be worth while for a Government with such a majority to set themselves to work to reform this particular part of our procedure? I am not expressing an opinion adopted for the purpose of this debate. Like my right hon. friend I have always thought that this particular form of procedure was a survival from past times, from circumstances which no longer exist, and was not suited to the case of the present day. I tried to press this upon the attention of the present Government when they were re-modelling the rules of the House, and I suggested that instead of depriving the House of its really substantial business at an important stage it would be much better to save its time by taking away control which is not effective, and at stages which are really of no great consequence. This is one of those stages, and I invite the Prime Minister to say whether the Government will not seriously consider dealing with this question by means of a permanent alteration in our procedure instead of by Sessional Order.


I think it would be a very undesirable precedent to set that I should give a pledge of what will happen when we are in opposition. I have never known a responsible Government receive such an invitation, or at any rate, respond to it, and I do not propose to be the first to set an inconvenient and possibly disastrous precedent. This is only a Sessional Order. I do not think any Government has ever proposed to make it a Standing Order, and that seems to indicate that its necessity has always been regarded as more or less dependent on special circumstances, and one ought not to give any absolute pledge as to its applicability at all times and circumstances. With regard to the second and more important point, I have always been of opinion that these Resolutions, which are never put down upon the Paper, of which nobody has any previous knowledge whatever, and which are for the first time read by the clerk at the Table, do not really afford any safeguard against illegitimate Or improvident expenditure of public money, and that both the Committee and Report stages of the Resolution are, in the altered condition in which we now live, an absolute and unmeaning form. But I am sorry to say, although I hold that view very strongly, and am glad to find the right hon. Gentleman does, I have a strong suspicion that we should find a considerable measure of hostility to an Amendment of the Standing Orders, and that we should have a prolonged and acrimonious, and perhaps, on the whole, not a very productive, debate, from the point of view of result. But in principle I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and hope we may come to a general agreement in that sense in all quarters of the House.


thought that what had fallen from the Prime Minister was not quite accurate in one respect. He had said that this method of putting Motions on the Paper was obsolete. Not very long ago the law officers had brought forward one of these money Resolutions, and on each occasion on which it came up it was productive of this good, that, as it came early in the afternoon's proceedings, full publicity was given, which would not have been the case if the discussion had taken place after eleven o'clock at night. The hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London brought forward the question of the salaries to be paid to the officials, and it was very notice-able that on each occasion that the question cropped up the Attorney-General announced that the salaries would be less than he had mentioned on the previous Occasion, and there was no question in his mind that it was owing to the publicity which was given to the money Resolution in a full House early in the afternoon that the triumph of the hon. Baronet was achieved. The salary in question was to have been £3,000 in the first place. On the next occasion that it came up for discussion the Attorney-General said he hoped it would only be £2,000, and he understood in the end it came down to £1,500. He took it that this Motion had a meaning behind it which had not been explained. From first to last the Irish University Bill had been smuggled and hidden away. They were now prevented from discussing in the House at a convenient hour the financial clauses of the Bill. It was brought in and rushed through Second Reading earlier than was expected and sent to a Committee, and now they were to be deprived of the opportunity of discussing the financial Resolution as they had expected to do. The hon. Baronet had let the Front Bench off very easily when he mentioned the names of some of those who had voted in 1905, when this Resolution, word for word, was suggested by the late Government. The present Lord Chancellor, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Patronage Secretary, the Postmaster General, the Junior Whip, the Minister for Education, the hon. Member representing the Board of Agriculture, the Under-Secretary for the Home Department, our present Ambassador at Washington, and the Home Secretary all voted directly against the Motion, and now, without a word of explanation, without expressing the slightest sorrow at having so soon to eat their words, he supposed being unrepentant, they proposed to vote in favour of it. Seldom had the House seen so humiliating a sight. He quite agreed that it would be impossible for the Prime Minister to bind his followers beyond the continuance of this Parliament. He did not suppose that any member of the present Government would, desire to tie their hands to that extent. What struck him was that had this Motion not been proposed there would have been ample time for discussing these financial Resolutions. He did not think that during the present session the right of discussion on financial Resolutions had been abused. Only on one occasion had a discussion been closured, and in that case it would be possible for hon. Members to pursue the subject at a future stage.

MR. BYLES (Salford, N.)

understood the object of the Motion was to prevent the discussion from being closed at eleven o'clock. He would always vote, whenever he had an opportunity, against the artificial restriction of debate. It was for that reason he would vote for the Motion proposed by the Prime Minister. If hon. Members really desired to discuss the Resolutions the clock would not prevent them from doing so. He regarded the suspension of the eleven o'clock rule as really an increase of the liberties of debate. As a matter of fact there need not be less discussion on the Money Resolutions than if a day had been given for their discussion, because they could go on till daylight.


May I ask the hon. Member if he has no consideration for our rest?


said he wanted to get on with business. There had been a great deal of hindrance of business, and he was sorry to say that there were some unpatriotic spirits in the House who did not seem to be desirous to get on with it.