HC Deb 03 November 1830 vol 1 cc130-43
Sir Robert Peel

said, that before he made the Motions which were usual at the commencement of every Session, for giving precedence on certain days to Orders, and on certain days to Notices, he wished to make a few observations on the general conduct of the business of that House. It was quite evident, from the occurrences of the last Session, and it was quite evident, even from the notices which had that evening been given (all of them, he willingly acknowledged, on subjects of great importance), that it would be a matter of exceeding difficulty to devise the means of satisfactorily transacting the public business. In point of fact, the great difficulty was, for the House to find time for the adequate performance of its several duties. It would undoubtedly be a very easy matter to pass a resolution that the House of Commons should meet at ten o'clock every morning; and if to such a proposition there was no objection, but that it would interfere with the private business of the Members, that objection ought not to be considered as one of sufficient validity. His objection, however, to such a proposition was, that it would interfere, not with the private business of Members, but with their public, and most important duties. The greater part of the mornings of many of the Members of that House was occupied, necessarily occupied, by their attendance on public duties. Without in the slightest degree disparaging the importance of the discussions in that House, he was not sure that their importance was exceeded by the importance of the deliberations of those committees which were appointed to investigate and to communicate to the House the facts on which their subsequent proceedings were to be founded. He was at a loss to know how both these descriptions of duties—the duty of attending upon committees, and the duty of attending in their places in that House—could be carried on, if the House were to meet at the early hour to which he had alluded. He was exceedingly unwilling, without some absolute and imperative necessity should present itself, to propose any very material departure from the present course. But he did think, that if the House were to avail itself of the regulations which, with that devotion to the public service which had ever marked his conduct, Mr. Speaker had himself suggested to him (Sir Robert Peel), and were to meet at three o'clock, instead of at four, such a change would not materially interfere with the duties of Members in attendance on committees, while it would evidently add an hour to the period far the transaction of business in the House itself. If the Speaker took the Chair at three o'clock, and it was generally understood that the ordinary hour for commencing public business should be, without fail, at five o'clock, and if every hon. Member would lend his adherence to the plan, it did not appear to him that he could suggest anything better calculated to facilitate the object in view. This arrangement would of course render it necessary that the committees above stairs, should terminate their proceedings at three o'clock. It might also be necessary, that those committees should meet at eleven o'clock instead of at twelve. But he by no means thought that the despatch of public business would be advanced by the plan of the House meeting at an earlier hour than three, or by committees meeting at an earlier hour than eleven. In the first place, he exceedingly doubted the policy of abstracting Members of the House from the means of communicating with their constituents. The letters from the General Post-office were not delivered until half-past nine. If Members had not the period from half-past nine to eleven for the purpose, how was it possible that they could satisfactorily answer the various applications which they received from their constituents? He was by no means prepared to say, that extreme pressure of business might not render some other arrangement necessary; but he should be very unwilling to go any further than his present proposition, without some urgent necessity, and after mature consideration.

Mr. Brougham

observed, that he had had it in contemplation to propose a more extensive plan, for the purpose of securing that the House should proceed to the consideration of public business with that freshness of their faculties, and of their bodily strength, so necessary for the purpose. He was quite ready, however, by way at least of a beginning, to adopt the suggestion of the right hon. Baronet, and he would, therefore, postpone his own plan. He begged to return Mr. Speaker his thanks, in common, he was sure, with every hon. Member who heard him, for the very considerable addition which he had himself proposed to make to his own duties. When the short period which Mr. Speaker had, at present, for repose and recreation was considered, the great sacrifice of an hour of that brief period, was one which the House and the country would know how to appreciate. He would merely throw out one suggestion: what was to be the case if Forty Members were not assembled at three o'clock? Was ipso facto an adjournment of the House to take place? That, however, was a difficulty which a little consideration would probably remove.

Colonel Davies

observed, that when it was known that subjects of great importance were about to be discussed in that House, such, for instance, as the abolition of slavery, petitions naturally poured in from all parts of the country. Now, were such petitions from the people to be received by the House, or were they not? If they were to be received, it was evident to him that it would be impossible for the public business invariably to commence at five o'clock. Two Sessions ago he had proposed that no petitions should be presented until the Orders of the Day had been disposed of; after which they might be presented, with as long speeches as the hon. Members by whom they were presented pleased. It was a common thing in the last Session to see public business postponed until nine, or half-past nine, by the presentation of petitions.

Mr. Hume

said, that it was necessary to adopt some measures to prevent the public business from falling into the same state of arrear in which it had unfortunately got during the last Session and the Session which preceded it. To accomplish that object, he should propose, that the House, besides sitting an additional hour each day, should also make Wednesday and Saturday days of business [cries of "No no."] He admitted that it might be inconvenient, but where public duty and private convenience clashed, it was incumbent upon the representatives of the people to sacrifice their own convenience to the just claims of their country. He was convinced, that if the two days which he had named were added to those on which the House already sat, they would, with the additional hours which the House was going to sit every day, be sufficient for the transaction of the public business. There was, however, another improvement which he begged leave to suggest to the present system. To allow Gentlemen to get through the business of the House properly, one hour ought to be allowed them for dinner. For instance, after meeting at three o'clock, they might proceed with business till five o'clock. At that hour they might adjourn till six, and then meet again. Under the present system of meeting at four, and going on without any adjournment, he had often suffered, and he had no doubt that other Members had also suffered, great inconvenience. When a great question was likely to come on, he had often been glad to make his dinner off a dozen pears. On such occasions he had often seen a House of two or three hundred Members reduced in a few minutes to a House of thirty or forty Members. Nay, when even the greatest eloquence was addressed to them, he had seen the benches deserted, and questions compulsorily postponed, because there was no audience to listen to the discussion. And why was that? Because dinner was ready. He thought, that if a certain hour were set aside for dinner, more Members would attend regularly to their duties than did at present. Indeed, it was almost impossible, under the present system, for a Member to attend to his duties in that House, and to his duties as a member of its committees. He often went to a committee at eleven o'clock in the morning, and remained there till after three o'clock. He then came down to the House with petitions which he had to present, and there he was often obliged to remain till five, six, and seven o'clock. Now, was he to go away with his petitions unpresented, or was he to remain in the House fasting? He frequently had remained fasting in the House for sixteen or seventeen hours at a time; lie had done it not merely fifty, but 500 times. How few were there whose physical strength could stand such abstinence and such exertion? For himself, he believed that he had now got accustomed to fasting. Why should they not adopt the practice followed in other legislative assemblies,—as, for instance, in those of the United States? There a bell rang for dinner at five o'clock, and as soon as it rang, the House was emptied immediately, even in the middle of a fine sentence. "I think, Sir," continued Mr. Hume, addressing himself to the Speaker, "that in justice to you, we ought to adopt a similar system, as it is well calculated to meet your convenience. All those who know the constant attendance which you are obliged to give every morning, and the perpetual reference which is made to you on points of form from the different committees which are then sitting, know that an hour and a half is all the time that you have out of the twenty-four hours to take exercise in. Now, the system which I venture to recommend must be more comfortable to you, for it must be convenient to you, Sir, to retire at five o'clock to a comfortable dinner, such as you no doubt like to have. If an Act of Parliament could prevent Gentlemen from feeling inconvenience when they went without their dinners, it would be all well enough. Such an Act of Parliament might indeed, be passed, but under the present constitution of the human stomach, it would be nothing but a dead letter. When business is to be done, it is necessary that we should approach it in that calm and equable temper which no man can possess who has gone without his dinner. I have heard it observed, over and over again, by strangers who have visited this metropolis, and who have some how or other also visited this House, as a most extraordinary occurrence, that as soon as the dinner hour arrives, no inducement can prevail upon Members to stay in the House to listen to the discussions which may then be going on. We have often matters of the deepest interest before us, which induce many to stay who are generally absent from our discussions. But even then what is the general practice? Why, Members stay in the House till seven o'clock; then, as the hour of dinner is fast advancing, they pair off till ten o'clock. At that hour they return again to their places, and give their votes upon questions on which they have not heard the debate. As this is a new Parliament, I hope that the House will feel it incumbent to take some measure to change the practice upon that point. If it does, I think that we may compress into a narrower compass much of our discussions, and do much more business than we have done in any of the late Sessions. Dining is a matter of pleasing gratification to many—to me, it is a matter almost of indifference. But any one who saw the manner of conducting business last Session must see the necessity of making some alteration in our mode of proceeding: common decency prescribes for us a new course, as the whole country is crying out that our old system was a shame and a scandal to the House of Commons." The hon. Member then proceeded to advise his hon. friend, the member for Waterford, not to press his motion for an adjournment every night at nine o'clock. He thought that a very useful compromise might be made, and he for one was ready to make it, provided the House would adopt his suggestions, and his hon. friend would abandon the strictness of his motion. He thought that they ought to meet at three o'clock, as had been suggested by the right hon. Gentleman—that they should occupy themselves with private business till five; that they should adjourn till six; that at six they should meet again, and proceed with public business till twelve o'clock, it being distinctly understood that no new matter was to be taken after eleven o'clock. By such an arrangement, any man, whether he was in a public office or had only private business to attend to, would be able, on retiring at twelve o'clock at night, to rise in the morning in a fit condition to meet the duties of his office. He said that it was impossible for any man, with less than an iron strength of constitution, to discharge his duty as a man of business properly, at an early hour of the next morning, if he had been compelled to pass the greater part of his night in that House. Let hon. Members just recollect how business was often transacted at a late hour. He had seen, more than once, seventy Orders of the Day disposed of after midnight; and he had often felt himself obliged to sit up to a very late hour, for the mere purpose of stopping the discussion on matters, which, if he had not interposed, would have been passed without any inquiry into their merits. He should suggest, as an Amendment upon the present system, that whenever petitions were presented, one Minister of the Crown, at least, should be present to listen to their contents. He admitted, that this might he imposing a severe duty upon them: but as the House was going to retire at an earlier hour than had been usual in late Sessions, and as they would, in consequence, be exposed to much less labour than they had hitherto been compelled to undertake, he thought that they ought not to have any objection to take upon themselves this new but not unnecessary duty.

Mr. Brougham

said, that he rose to put a single question to his hon. friend, the member for Middlesex, protesting at the same time against his hon. friend's plan for sitting six days in the week,—a labour which no strength but that of his hon. friend, or of himself, or other men of an iron frame, could undergo, no matter whether he was a Minister who had the public business to transact, or a private Gentleman who had nothing to attend to but his own concerns. Protesting, then, against his hon. friend's proposal for sitting on Wednesdays and Saturdays, he would now proceed to put one question to him regarding his dining scheme. Having found easy means to empty the House of its Members at the hour of five, by the ringing of one bell, he wished to know whether his hon. friend had got another bell, of power to bring back to their duties at six o'clock, those Gentlemen whom he had called away at five.

Mr. Cutlar Ferguson

also expressed his conviction, that the public business could not be conducted as it ought to be, unless some change were made in the pre-sent system. Almost all the important business was now brought on after mid-night, and thus it happened, that few. subjects of paramount interest obtained the discussion which they required. He; had been earlier and later in that House | than any other Member present, always excepting his hon. friend, the member for Middlesex [Cry of "No, no."] He repeated the assertion, and contended, that he had lost a great deal of his time in the House in listening to dull discussions on petitions, which could lead to no useful practical result, when the discussion sought rather to have been reserved till the matter of them came before the House in some shape in which it might produce an useful practical result. He thought that petitioners had no right to expect that a full discussion should take place on their petitions when they were first presented; on the contrary, he thought the House ought to abstain from entering into such discussion. There was another grievance, of which he thought every Member had a right to complain. When fifty or sixty Orders stood simultaneously together, no one, who wished to be present at the discussion of any one of them, could be absent during any part of the time that the House was sitting, and every body knew that it sometimes sat from four o'clock in the afternoon to four o'clock in the morning. If such a person were absent for a single hour, it was very likely that on his return he would find that the question on which he wished to express his opinions had been disposed of in silence during his absence. He therefore thought, that the Orders of the Day ought, in future, never to be taken out of their turn, but should come on in regular rotation; and that no preference should be given to any of them, merely because they had reference to the public business, or were brought forward under the auspices of Ministers.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that he had heard various suggestions on this subject, which he thought were impracticable, and that of the right hon. Gentleman appeared to him equally impracticable. But there was one mode in which he thought it would be possible to get through all the business of the House, and the mode was this;— Let three days in the week be appointed for doing all the business of the House, and three days on which Committees should sit, and the House not. This, at all events, was clear, that on Wednesdays and Saturdays the Committees might sit, and the House not; and if to these two days another were added, there might, in all cases, be an effective attendance. As to the hour at which the House rose, he found that the present practice of sitting late was of very modern date. It appeared from the Journals, that up to 1791 the House of Commons generally met at two or three o'clock. The Chair was generally taken at two; at least so said Hat-sell. In 1738 there were 100 Members present, and the Speaker in the Chair, at eight o'clock, on an important question; and in March, 1738, the debate was thought late because it began at eleven o'clock. In 1695 there was a Standing Order that no new business should be taken after one o'clock; and in 1698 it was determined that the Orders of the Day should be read at twelve o'clock. The first day on which candles were used in the House was the memorable 4th of December, 1641, which was remarkable for King Charles the 1st coming to the bar of the House. He had conferred with his constituents, and they required an early adjournment, in order that it might be possible to get through the business of the next day. He had mentioned nine o'clock for the adjournment, because it would take about an hour to persuade Gentlemen that he was in earnest. He had no objection to sit until eleven, but to a later hour than that he could not consent with the approbation of his constituents. He would, therefore, take measures that the House should adjourn at eleven o'clock, so that Members might be in bed by twelve.

Mr. Maberly

expressed a hope that some of the right hon. Gentlemen opposite would give an explanation as to whether the Orders of the Day would be taken in future in rotation, and without preference to those brought forward by the Government.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, that the lengthened discussion in which they were now engaged, was a good practical illustration of their mode of doing business. He thought that by the regulation now proposed by his hon. friend, those who were inclined to shirk their duty would shirk it still, whilst those who were not would not receive the slightest benefit from it. The only result of it would be, that it would give the Speaker an opportunity, of which he was at present deprived, of taking refreshment. He thought that it would be for the benefit of the public if the House should take measures to place in the Speaker's Chair, when he was unable to attend from indisposition, some other Member, especially appointed to supply his place; either the Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means or some other member whom the House might select. He did not know whether this could be done consistently with the forms of the House; but the individual so appointed should take the Chair only on occasions of indispensable necessity.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

rose, in consequence of the manner in which the hon. member for Abingdon had called upon the Members of his Majesty's Government to give some explanation respecting the practicability of always taking the Orders of the Day in rotation. Speaking without any regard to his own personal convenience, but from his sincere conviction, he must say, that if the House were to come to such a decision as the hon. Member called for, it would preclude the Government from carrying on the business of the country. For instance, the business done in the Committee of Supply was often of indispensable necessity; but if that business could only be taken as it came on in the Orders of the Day, six weeks might elapse before the Minister who had to propose it could bring it under the consideration of Parliament, and then, when he had once lost his turn, he would be unable to regain it for six weeks more, in consequence of the manner in which the Orders of the Day would be arranged. His feeling was, that on a question of this importance they ought to act cautiously in their experiments. As to the dinner-plan of the hon. member for Middlesex, the objection to it had been so well put by the hon. and learned member for Yorkshire, that he felt it unnecessary to press it further. In conclusion, he expressed a hope that the House would agree to make the experiment which had been proposed by his right hon. friend.

Mr. Maberly

said, that the right hon. Gentleman had misunderstood the suggestion which he had thrown out. He had proposed that two days in the week should be devoted to the Government business alone; such a regulation, he was convinced, would be advantageous, both for the Government and the House. It would also obviate the objection which the right hon. Gentleman had just started.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that he certainly had not understood the hon. Member to have made such a statement as that which he had just offered to the House. But even that statement did not get rid of all the objections which he had to the hon. Member's scheme.

Mr. Spring Rice

said, that regulations, he was convinced, would not remedy the evils complained of, unless hon. Members would use their own discretion in addressing the House. He was afraid, too, that the public would not be satisfied unless Wednesday were added to the days of public business.

Mr. D. W. Harvey

said, that in the whole of this discussion it appeared to be taken for granted that the petitions presented were indispensable, and that the number of them could not be diminished. Now, this was a very great mistake. It was in the power of the House to lessen the number of petitions, by taking away the causes of those petitions. If the House would consent to parliamentary reform, to the reduction of taxation, and to the abolition of slavery, the only question remaining would be, how they should occupy their time.

Mr. N. Calvert

said, it was evident that a discussion like the present could lead to no practical result, and he begged to suggest that a Select Committee should be appointed to consider the mode of conducting the business of the House.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

complained, that though he had 13,000 or 14,000 constituents, he could never get an opportunity of speaking, except upon the presentation of petitions. He was ashamed to say, that he was in a sort of dose when his hon. friend (Mr. Hume) began his speech; but when his hon. friend talked about dining, he awoke up directly, at the sound of the word, as being an Alderman, it was natural he should. His hon. friend complained that others had prevented him from taking his dinner; but let him tell his hon. friend, that he (Mr. Hume) had often, by his long speeches, prevented him (Mr. Alderman Waithman) from dining. That his hon. friend did a very great deal of good in the House, he should be the last person to deny; but he was quite sure that his hon. friend took up no very small portion of the time of the House in doing it. He wished his hon. friend would visit the city, and dine for a few weeks with the citizens. That would, perhaps, give his hon. friend a salutary fit of the gout, and lay him up for a week or two, and then they would see whether his observation were not correct, and whether, in the absence of his hon. friend, the public business could not be got through much more speedily,—he would not say better; the fact was, that while those Members who had the faculty of speaking half a dozen times in the course of a night persisted in exercising that faculty, no regulations would do any good.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that all that had taken place during this discussion confirmed him in the opinion he had expressed at the outset,—namely, that the question was one of extreme difficulty. All that could be hoped for was, that hon. Members would use their individual discretion. Any Gentleman might, if he pleased, detain the House for four or five hours, and unless Gentlemen would curtail their speeches, or the House put down the practice of enlarging unnecessarily upon fertile topics of argument and oratory, he did not see what good any regulation could answer. They had got now into the habit of printing almost every petition, and the reason assigned for this course was, the prevention of lengthy discussions upon petitions; yet, since this plan had been adopted, he was sure that debates upon petitions had been considerably lengthened. All that could be done by way of regulation on the subject was, as it appeared to him, to give up two hours to private business,—the public business being brought on always at five o'clock. At the same time it should be understood, that any Gentleman who thought proper might present a petition at any other period of the evening, if there should be no public business before the House. After all, however, almost every thing must depend upon the individual discretion of hon. Members, who could do much more than any regulation could effect towards the attainment of the desired end, if they would address themselves fairly and seriously to the subject tinder debate, laying aside all extraneous matter, and not indulging in surplus eloquence which never carried conviction with it, and which often tended rather to obscure than to throw light upon the subject before the House. Some of the suggestions that had been thrown out were, he thought, obviously impracticable. If, for instance, they should agree to adjourn the House for an hour, at five o'clock, in order that Members might take their dinner, such a regulation would, he was sure, make no alteration in the dinner-hours of the majority of the House. They who were accustomed to dine at seven o'clock, would still dine at that hour, and not between five and six. Then again as to the proposal of the hon. member for Water-ford (Mr. O'Connell) of setting aside three days for private business, he thought they would rather lose than gain by that arrangement. It was impossible to get through the public business in three days, and the evenings of the three days devoted to private business would be spent in some other way, and not in that anticipated by the hon. Member. Indeed, he did not see how Gentlemen who had been attending committees all day could be expected to devote their evenings to a similar employment. What he proposed, therefore, was, that the House for the future should meet at three o'clock; that the time from three to five should be devoted to private business; and that the public business should always commence at five o'clock. If, however, this did not meet the wishes of the House, then he thought the only course to be taken was to appoint a Select Committee on the subject, as his hon. friend (Mr. N. Calvert) opposite had recommended.

Mr. J. Wood

begged to know, whether there was any understanding with regard to the hour of adjournment. If there was, it ought to be made a Standing Order. He begged also to know, whether Wednesday was to be added to the days of public business, and whether, during the time set apart for receiving petitions, one of the Ministers of the Crown would be always present.

Sir R. Peel

thought it impossible to fix any hour for the adjournment of the House. A regulation of that character would, he was convinced, be extremely mischievous. They must not make it peremptory to break off in the midst of a discussion, no matter how important and how pressing that discussion might be. It would be better to leave it to the House to determine, on motion made at the time, whether they should adjourn or continue to sit. As to adding Wednesday to the days of public business, his only objection to that was, that he thought it beyond the strength of hon. Members to sit for five days in succession. If it should be insisted upon that Wednesday should be a day of public business, he was quite sure that on Friday hon. Members would find themselves too much jaded—too much exhausted, to apply themselves to the public business, so as to transact it in the manner its importance required. He could not, as he thought the House would see, promise to be present every day during the presentation of petitions. The duties of his office would not allow him to make any such promise. This, however, he would promise—namely, that he would do all he could, consistently with his duty to the country, to be present every day.

Mr. Hume

said, that the right hon. Gentleman was not the only Minister of the Crown. All he required was, that some Minister of the Crown should be present during the presentation of petitions.

Mr. C. W. Wynn

thought the hon. member for Middlesex (Mr. Hume) took a very extraordinary view of this subject; for if a petition related to a matter connected with the Home Department, the presence of the Colonial Secretary, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, would not be much more desirable than that of any other Member. The way, however, of obviating the inconvenience which the hon. Member appeared anxious to guard against was, as it appeared to him, obvious enough. When any hon. Member had a petition to present which he thought required the attention of Government, let him make a communication to the Minister to whose department the subject-matter of the petition belonged. This would ensure the attendance of that Minister.

The usual Sessional Orders were agreed to, it being understood that after Thursday the House should meet at three o'clock.