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Sittings Of The House (Saturday)

Volume 91: debated on Friday 22 March 1901

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I beg to move the motion standing in my name. It is not of a very cheerful character, but the necessity for it must be obvious to everybody who has followed the statements I have made from time to time as to the position of Supply. As the Mouse is well aware, we must complete Supply by the end of the week in order to deal with the Report of Supply on Monday, and bring in then the Appropriation Bill and read it a first time, so that we may be able to obey the law. I regret the additional strain which is placed on hon. Members, but I think they will readily adopt the course which I now propose. Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do meet to-morrow for the business of Supply unless (Votes A and I in the Navy Estimates and the Excess Votes for Civil Services and Revenue Departments, 1899–1900, are previously disposed of."—(Mr. A. J. Balfour.)

I have an Amendment to this resolution, and have no hesitation in rising to move it at once, because it will not in any way interfere with the general discussion. The Amendment which I propose to submit is, "To omit all the words of the resolution from the word 'Supply,' Inline 2, to the end of the resolution," so as to make it read, "That this House do meet to-morrow for the business of Supply." I object to the form of this resolution. To say the least of it, it is most unusual, and so far as my memory carries me, unprecedented. When, in the past, the Leader of the House has decided to ask for a Saturday sitting, he has always put the resolution on the Paper, asking for it categorically; but this resolution is in the nature of a menace, saying, "Unless you grant us certain Supply"—we are even informed at what hour of the night we must grant it—"you must have a Saturday] sitting." I object to this irregular; system of doing the business of the House of Commons, and of carrying it on under threats and continual pressure. The Leader of the House is armed with great powers—he has just now suspended the Twelve o'clock Rule—great powers of closure, but the object of this resolution is to get a new system of closure in spite of the Chairman. It is a device, a new patent dodge, by which the Government seek to force Supply through the House of Commons, and to add to their armoury, already pretty well stocked, of coercive measures. Although my colleagues have been frequently accused of an intention to obstruct the business of the nation, they are prepared to come down on Saturday to do that business. I say it is the First Lord of the Treasury who is now obstructing the business of the nation, when he declares in a melancholy manner at the Table that he moves this resolution in order to force the House of Commons to scamp the work of Supply-to-night. The Leader of the House ought to be prepared to come down manfully on Saturday to finish this business of Supply. For my part, I think it would be much better, both from the point of view of doing the business promptly and properly, and for the convenience of hon. Members, that we should have a Saturday sitting rather than sit up to-night all night. Many of us have suffered already from the perpetual late sittings during the past fortnight. I maintain that the continual recurrence of these late sittings is the result of the mismanagement of the business of the House. No Leader of the House has ever had such power as the right hon. Gentleman, but the result is that no Leader during my twenty years experience has been responsible for such a procession and succession of late sittings at this early period of the session. It comes to this, that the more power we give to the Leader of the House the longer he keeps us to the small hours of the morning. J say that such a condition of things is a reproach to him, and shows that he does not devote sufficient attention to carrying out his responsible duties in the arrangement of the business of the House. The First Lord of the Treasury says that he has already explained the condition of Supply and the necessities of the case; hut who created all these necessities? The condition of Supply arises from the fact of the late meeting of Parliament and the short time devoted to Supply. Such a continuous amount of Supply is absolutely unprecedented and unparalleled in the history of the House of Commons, and the unhappy position that has arisen is entirely due to the Leader of the House and not to the action of the House itself. It is a hard thing that we should be subjected to the fatigue of sitting up till six o'clock in the morning, and then be told it is brought about by some superior power over which the First Lord of the Treasury has no control. I am of opinion that the old procedure should be adhered to, and if we are to have a Saturday sitting it should be categorically stated, and should not be held as a threat over our heads. Amendment proposed, to leave out all the words after the word "Supply," in line 2, to the end of the Question.—(Mr. Dillon.)

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

The motion in its present form was put down necessarily before I knew we were going to have this discussion, which has occupied three hours of our time. It is now quite clear that a Saturday sitting will be absolutely necessary, and therefore I assent to the Amendment.

Upon a point of order, Sir, I was going to move as an Amendment to the Amendment that the sitting should commence at three instead of at twelve o'clock, having regard to the late hour at which the present sitting may terminate.

Amendment agreed to.

appealed to the right hon. Gentleman as to whether it would not be better to commence the Saturday sitting at three o'clock. Right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Gentlemen might have to remain in the House till six o'clock in the morning, and under those circumstances would it not be more reasonable to make the sitting commence at three, in order that they might have some rest before commencing their labours on the morrow?

It is not possible to make any distinction between the hours for meeting to-morrow and the hour for meeting on a Wednesday, and it would be far preferable to meet at noon than at three o'clock in any case.

pointed out that if the Government were successful in getting Vote A and Vote I that would take away every opportunity of continuing the general discussion upon the Votes. As some arrangement had been made to continue the general discussion upon Army Estimates, would the right hon. Gentleman give the Navy Estimates similar consideration?

With regard to the Army Estimates, which have been referred to, when the arrangement was made I happened, unfortunately, to be absent. The Government got the two first Votes upon the condition that a resolution was put down on some later date which would give an opportunity for general discussion on those particular Votes; besides that I trust there will be an opportunity given for some discussion on the ordinary Estimates—a general discussion of more detail and of a less restricted kind. If there is a resolution, discussion must be confined to the matters contained in the resolution. Now, there has been no opportunity for a free discussion such as we usually have on Supply, with the Speaker in the Chair, on general Army matters. There are many Members of the House who no doubt consider it necessary, or at least extremely desirable, that there should be a full opportunity of discussing these matters. Will the right hon. Gentleman set aside one of the Votes upon which greater latitude would be allowed for discussion than is usual in Supply? It is a thing often done, and I think a similar practice ought to be followed with regard to the Navy Votes.

said, with regard to the Navy Votes, a considerable number of Members desired to discuss the Navy Votes, and it would be inconvenient if the discussion was restricted.

said that the reason why the right hon. Gentleman had assented to the motion of the hon. Member for East Mayo was that he merely desired to take these two Votes. Was that the intention of the right hon. Gentleman? Was he right in assuming that there was no intention of conducting any other business of Supply beyond Vote A and Vote 1?

The only business we shall ask the House to deal with to-morrow is the discussion affecting Vote A and Vote I and the Excess Vote. Committee of Ways and Means is a formal matter, necessary for the introduction of the Appropriation Bill. With regard to the observations which fell from the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, the arrangement made with regard to the Army Votes was this. We felt that the case brought forward by my right hon. friend the Secretary of State for War and the speech which embodied those views foreshadowed what might be called a constructive scheme of Army reform, and we thought to confine that discussion within the fixed and rigid limits of the twenty-three days allotted to Supply would be putting a great strain upon the Supply rule. We thought that we ought to bring forward a subsequent motion embodying the main ideas of my hon. friend's scheme, which would leave open a full opportunity for dealing with the Army Estimates. I hope those opportunities will not be pressed beyond a certain point—not in the interests of the Government, but in the interests of Supply. Then I am asked whether I will not apply the same principle to the Navy Vote. I do not think I could do that to the same extent, because the Votes do not profess to embody any considerable scheme of naval reform.

pointed out that there were many matters of general interest which could not be discussed at the late hours available, and as the granting of Vote A and Vote I would shut out in the future the whole discussion on those matters, he hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would see his way to give some opportunity for a full discussion at a later date.

My desire is that we should do our best to give every opportunity for the discussion of the ordinary Votes. I will do my best, but it must rest with the Chairman to a very great extent. So far as in me lies I will do the best I can.

suggested that, having regard to the necessity of Supply being obtained by the 31st March, only the Money Vote should be taken—Vote 1. If they did that they could bring up Vote A upon another occasion. He understood that if the Government obtained the money on Vote I the law would be complied with, and, if that was so, he did not see why Vote A could not be kept back for general discussion.

said he did not think that Vote A could be kept back in that way, because Vote A was the Vote for the men, and the Vote for the men only extended to the end of the financial year.

Main question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House do meet to-morrow for the Business of Supply.