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Business Of The House

Volume 41: debated on Monday 9 August 1920

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My noble friend the Leader of the House is prevented from attending here to-day, as he expected, not having been able to return to London. I therefore move on his behalf the Motion standing in Lord Curzon's name, the object of which is, I think, familiar to all your Lordships.

It gives Government business precedence throughout the rest of the present sittings up to the adjournment, and on Wednesday the Government take precedence over Motions and Questions standing in the names of unofficial Peers. I suggest, my Lords, that the first business to-day should be the Restoration of Order in Ireland Bill, and that the remaining orders should then be taken as they stand upon the Paper.

Moved, That Standing Orders Nos. XXI and XXXIX be considered in order to their being suspended until the House adjourn for the Recess, and that, until that date, Government Business have precedence over other Notices and Orders of the Day.— (The Earl of Crawford.)

I did not quite catch what the noble Earl said with regard to the business on Wednesday; but I gathered—he will correct me if I am wrong—that the Motion standing in my name for that day and Motions in the names of other noble Lords will be taken subsequently to Government business. I understand that the Motion which the noble Earl has made is the regular thing at; this period of the year in normal times, and that at such times it naturally passes without comment or opposition. But we are not in normal times.

The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack reminded us only two or three days ago of the very serious crisis with which the country is faced. I think he compared it with the crisis which existed six years ago—namely, in August, 1914. We are also faced with the fact that His Majesty's Government has steadily and continuously departed from the long-established precedent of making statements in your Lordships' House in regard to such crises as now exist. Your Lordships are therefore left to such information as they may obtain through the ordinary channels. We have seen manifestoes issued to the country on the present state of Europe by persons who are certainly ill-informed and have no particular right to issue such manifestoes. I gather from the papers that there is to be a Parliament of Labour to inquire into this present crisis and to bring action to bear outside Parliament, or rather over the heads of Parliament, upon the Government. That certainly does not constitute a normal condition of affairs.

I am particularly anxious, as your Lordships will gather by my opening words, with regard to the business which is to be taken on Wednesday, because a Motion of mine is put down for that day asking the Government to make a statement on the very serious condition of affairs in Poland. have, I think, given evidence to the noble Earl the Leader of this House that it is no desire of mine to embarrass him or the Government or to add in any way to the very arduous burden of responsibility which rests on his shoulders at this time. My Motion was put down some weeks ago, and in deference to his views I took it off the Paper and postponed it until this week. As the approaching recess came very near, there was no recourse but to put it down for the only day vacant. Now the position of affairs, if your Lordships adopt the noble Earl's Motion, will be that my Motion could only come on at the end of business, possibly at as late an hour as the one at which we concluded our business last week. Personally, sitting up late does not affect me, but that is not the case, possibly, with noble Lords who have harder work than I have to do in the course of the day.

I wonder whether in the circumstances the noble Earl would consider making an exception of next Wednesday and allowing business to stand as it has stood hitherto on the Paper for that day. I do not know whether he would be willing to consider that, or whether he would tell us if it is the intention of the Government before the House rises altogether to give your Lordships an opportunity of hearing an official statement of the position of affairs. In such a case, naturally, I have no wish to make speeches. What I do desire is to assert the privilege of Parliament, which exists in this House as much as in the other House, to hear directly from the Government what they are in a position to tell us with regard to one of the most important crises.

My Lords, I have no desire to oppose the Motion. It seems to me to be quite a reasonable one at this period of the session. But I think that the noble Lord who has just sat down has a very special claim on two grounds. In the first place, his own personal claim, that he had only deferred this Motion at the express wish of the Leader of the House, and, according to ordinary Parliamentary practice—there is no breach of faith in the matter, of course—it is usual, when a Motion has been deferred at the wish of the Government, for the Government to make it as easy as possible for the noble Lord who is in charge of the question to bring it before them. That is one claim. The other is the extreme gravity of the situation in Poland with which the noble Lord desires to deal. Indeed, I hardly think it is possible that your Lordships should separate for the recess without some statement being made on behalf of the Government in respect to Poland.

I should like to make a suggestion. I do not know whether it will meet the views of the noble Lord and of the Government. I understand that in another place there is to be a statement on Poland to-morrow. The usual practice in old days was that a statement of that kind was made in both Houses of Parliament simultaneously, and there is all the greater reason for it in our case because we have the honour of numbering among our members the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Supposing that the noble Lord, before Public Business, put a Question by private notice to the Government, would they be prepared to make a statement to-morrow? In that event we should, at any rate, be placed in possession of all that the Government desired to say to the country upon the Polish situation. I, am not going for a moment to anticipate what the Government might say, but it might be that the account that Lord Curzon would give of the situation was of such a character as to call for a discussion in your Lordships' House. At this period of the session it would only be if the matter were really very urgent, but it might be very urgent. We should then be in a position to judge from the reply of the noble Earl whether special arrangements could be made, either on Wednesday or Thursday, for a further discussion of the matter. If the noble Earl and the Government agree, I imagine that would be the right and the best course to pursue.

My Lords, in the first place I really must take exception to my noble friend's statement that the old practice of making statements in Parliament on these matters has been abandoned. I think I am correct in saying that much the most important statements during this year have been made by Lord Curzon in this House—the most important both in their outline of policy and the most exhaustive in their detailed exposition of the varying situation. Lord Curzon's statements on foreign affairs are exceptionally full. So far from its being true that the old practice has been abandoned, I take the other view. I think that Lord Curzon's statements on these matters are of a much more full and exhaustive character than, for instance, were the statements made by the great Secretaries of State in the old days, such as Lord Salisbury and Lord Granville. That, however, is by the way.

As to the immediate question before us, I should like to say that next Wednesday has been intercepted from Private Business purely for the purpose of meeting the convenience of the House as a whole, There is no idea of doing it except for the convenience of the House as a whole, and it is the first time that we have invaded the rights of unofficial Peers in 1920. The object is for this House at once, at the beginning of its sitting, to deal with Commons Messages dealing with Lords Amendments. Your Lordships have made one or two very crucial Amendments in the Mines Bill, for instance, and I cannot help saying that it is desirable, if we can, to begin on that Bill of first-rate importance on Wednesday, so that in the event of further Messages having to go elsewhere we should be able to send the Bill down to the other House at the earliest possible time during that sitting. Everybody knows that that is to the mutual convenience of the two Houses. That is why we propose to exclude unofficial Peers from the precedence they enjoy on that Wednesday.

This does not, of course, exclude Lord Treowen's Motion. It comes up just the same on Wednesday, but it does not come first. And I really never quite understand why so much importance is attached to making an important speech and having an important reply before dinner rather than after dinner. The number of Peers present may be smaller, but the OFFICIAL REPORT is impartial between pre-dinner sittings and post-dinner sittings, and, so far as the public is concerned, the report is identical. I am most anxious that we should meet Lord Treowen, as far as we can. Lord Curzon will not be in London until 7 o'clock to-night. I will explain to him that there is anxiety on the part of certain Peers to hear a statement about Poland, and I have no doubt that he will do his utmost to meet that desire. I can at least guarantee this—that if Lord Curzon himself could not make the statement on Wednesday when Lord Treowen's Motion is down, I would undertake that the Foreign Office should give me a complete text outlining the general views of the Government. Beyond that text it would clearly be impossible for me to go, but I could at least convey in official form the actual views of the Department.

My suggestion, whatever it was worth, was that that statement, if possible, should be made to-morrow.

I under-stand that. It would render it unnecessary possibly for Lord Treowen to make his Motion on Wednesday. I quite see Lord Salisbury's point, and that is what I will have conveyed to Lord Curzon. I hope your Lordships will see that I am in a position of difficulty, and can give no pledge on the matter, in view of the fact that it is impossible for me to communicate with the Secretary of State until he comes back to-night.

On Question, Motion agreed to.