HC Deb 21 July 1831 vol 5 cc138-46
Lord Althorp

—I rise, in pursuance of notice I gave yesterday, to bring forward a motion to enable the Committee to make more expeditious progress with the Reform Bill than it is now doing. I am aware that the Motion I am about to make is one for which there is no precedent on the Journals of the House; and it will, therefore, be necessary for me to recall to the recollection of the House those special circumstances which, in my opinion, ought to induce the House to agree to the Motion. My proposition is, that the Order of the Day for the House proceeding with the Reform Bill in the Committee shall take precedence of all public business whatever, on those days for which it is appointed. The grounds on which I make this Motion are, that the measure is one which, as all agree, whether they be in favour of, or opposed to, the Bill, is of paramount importance—of more importance, indeed, than any measure that was ever under the discussion of the House; and not only is the subject of vast importance, but the measure itself is of so complicated a nature, that it will necessarily lead to much discussion and consumption of time in the Committee, thus not only forming an exception to all rules in its importance, but also in its details. I do not propose this Motion with a view to any unnecessary haste; I rather propose it in order to give plenty of time; but that the measure may not be spread over so large a space as to render it improbable that it will come to a satisfactory conclusion at last. I am aware that what I am proposing will form a novel precedent, and that it will be a precedent which may, on future occasions, lead to inconveniences; but still, I think, that were the same circumstances again combined as are combined on the present occasion, it would be a precedent proper and unobjectionable. What are these circumstances? It is a question which interests every part of the country, from one end of it to another; and I should say, even were its importance only one half what it is, that while it is so deeply interesting to the whole of the population, it would be wise in the House to give up the rest of the business before it, for the purpose of attending more particularly to this; and I also think, that the country would have a right to expect this of the present House of Commons, chosen, as that has been, to promote Reform. I think that, as the country is looking forward with breathless impatience to the carrying of this one measure, it has a right to call on its Representatives to postpone all things of minor importance, in order that we may apply our undivided attention to this single one. I have now stated the grounds on which I make this Motion. It is not necessary for me further to impress these grounds on the House; for if there are any Gentlemen who do not think, that circumstances in any instance can justify the precedent which we are now about to set, nothing that I can say will convince them to the contrary. But every one must be aware of the truth of what I have stated. Though I shall propose, that the Committee on the Reform Bill take precedence of all public business, whether petitions, motions, or orders of the day, there are, undoubtedly, petitions which must form an exception to the rule; those on the Bill itself, of course, must be received. I should therefore propose, Sir, having communicated with you on the subject, and having obtained (as might be expected from your readiness to forward all the objects of the House) your kind consent to take the Chair at three o'clock, as at the commencement of the Session, and also to sit on Saturdays, for the purpose of taking petitions—I should propose, that such be the arrangement; by which means we shall, on Saturdays, have time for petitions; and by meeting at three o'clock, we may hope to be able to proceed to the question of Reform at four, and so have about eight hours every night for the discussion of the Bill in the Committee. In proposing this, I do not think, that I am asking too much, for I cannot see, that the House would gain any advantage from varying the subjects under discussion; on the contrary, I think that it will be better able to give its attention to this absorbing topic, by not entering into any such variety. With this view, I beg leave to move, "that the Order of the Day for the Committee on the Reform of Parliament (England) Bill, do take precedence of public petitions, notices of motions, and other orders, on each day for which it may be appointed."

Mr. C. W. Wynn

had heard the noble Lord's Motion with deep concern. He had heard it with deep concern, because he knew of no proposition, within the last fortnight, coming from the noble Lord, which had not received the assent of the House. If the Government had power to give effect to this Motion (but, he thanked God that they had not the power), in what a situation would that House be placed. If the King's Ministers, backed by a majority in that House, were to be allowed to say, that for an indefinite time particular business, which was proceeding de die in diem, should always be entitled to precedence over all other public business—if no Member, without their consent, was to be allowed to bring forward a motion—he should say, that that House was abdicating its functions of being the Grand Inquest of the nation. But they were told, that Saturdays would be allowed for petitions. Petitions on the Reform Bill were, indeed, to be admitted. He begged to be allowed to ask, if there was a petition charging the Ministers, or any one of them with an offence, and if a Member of the Commons chose to lay that petition before the Representatives of the country, was the permission of the Government to be asked for that purpose? and was it to be humbly implored to waive the privilege with which the vote of that House had invested it. He felt, that it was only necessary to suggest to the House how imprudent it would be to agree to so dangerous a precedent. He remembered when the proposition was made for orders to have the precedence of notices, and he remembered that it was resisted by him and others, on the ground that it was an improper rule for the House of Commons to adopt, and might put a stop to the most interesting business. But what was the answer on that occasion? Why, that business of an urgent nature, whether Ministers insisted on their right of precedence or not, might be brought forward by any Member; that the right of a Member to stand up and make a motion, without giving any notice, could not be taken away, and he might bring forward any urgent business. No regulation respecting orders preceding notices could take away that right. It was now proposed by the noble Lord that the Reform business should have precedence over all other business; and that it should come forward on certain nights, and have priority, even before the presentation of petitions, which was always the first stage of all business. What would be the consequence? What would be the remedy applied? Why, every person, on the Order of the Day being moved, might move an Amendment, and might successfully resist the progress of business, and effectually stop the House from proceeding with the measure the noble Lord was so anxious to forward. He should be sorry if any person embraced such a course, but he could conceive cases in which a Member might think that warranted. There was a motion of the hon. Member opposite, on the state of the poor of Ireland, which he should say was a question more immediately urgent—he would not say of comparatively more importance—but of more immediate urgency, than the Reform Bill. The hon. Member might think it proper to bring on that motion before the Reform question was settled. If the noble Lord should persist in his Motion, he foresaw that debates would be brought on in a contentious spirit, and in a manner most inconvenient to the House; giving rise to personal acrimony and personal contests, and retarding the business of Parliament more than could possibly be done by adherence to the old rules. The course proposed by the noble Lord would be found pregnant with evils. What, then, could be done better? He was disposed to accede to an understanding or arrangement, by which, without making a positive order, the Reform business might come on first. If his noble friend would allow him to suggest, that an understanding of this kind would be better than an order, because an understanding could, at any time, in a case of urgency, be set aside, and no precedent would be established. If they were now to establish such a precedent, it might be used hereafter, by an over-bearing majority, to prevent the business of the House coming on, and put a stop to the most important and urgent matters. It might be used, for example, to prevent the House acting on that order, which said, that a Committee of Supply should precede other business on certain nights, and thus stop the most important national business. The redress of grievances was the first duty of the House, even before granting the Supplies. If the House, however, allowed such an order to pass, it might place a power in the hands of a Ministry to procure the Supplies, and then to prorogue the House, and take away from a minority the means of even insuring a discussion, or taking into consideration any grievance whatever. He was aware, that if his noble friend pressed his Motion, resistance would be useless; still he would urge it on his noble friend—he would urge it on the members of the Government—that it would be much better to come to an understanding that such an arrangement should take effect, than to press the Motion. He would remind the House, that there was no occasion for the order, because, since the question of Reform came on this Session, not the slightest attempt had been made to forward any motion to delay the Reform Bill. It would be infinitely better, therefore, to depend on the inclination of the House, than to establish an order, of which no man living could foresee the consequences, or have any idea of the danger attending it. It might be said, that he was tenacious of precedents; but he had sat for thirty years in that House, and he had seen many individuals live to regret the precedents they had established to suit a particular occasion, and which often led to consequences of which the mover had no idea. What reasons did the noble Lord urge for this order? He stated the very great importance of the subject, and the great length to which it was likely to extend. He would say, that all the Members seemed of the same opinion, for no person had, at any time, made any motion with the intention of creating delay. But if the subject were of such importance, it was necessary to allow time to discuss it in all its details. The details were so various—they embraced so many things—that even the framers of the Bill must allow, that it would take, at the least, four or five weeks to examine them thoroughly. He would urge on his noble friend, to adopt his suggestion, and be content with an understanding in the House, and trust to the general temper and disposition of the House for that support it seemed inclined to give him.

Lord Althorp

was aware, that the regulation he had proposed might produce great inconvenience; but, under the particular circumstances of the case, he thought that course necessary. His only object was, to ensure the House going into a Committee on the Reform Bill, at an early hour. If, however, he thought that this object could be obtained by the suggestion of his right hon. friend, and if he found the House ready to come to such an understanding, he for one should be disposed to agree to that suggestion. He was aware that what his right hon. friend had stated was correct—that no Gentleman had interfered by notices of motions to stop the Reform Bill; but there had been other discussions, which prevented it being brought on till six or seven o'clock. If he found the House ready to come to an understanding, that the discussion on the Reform Question should always come on at a certain hour, he should be ready to withdraw his Motion. At the same time he felt, that he was bound to propose it, because it was urgent that some step should be taken.

Mr. Goulburn

objected to the Motion, that it would either place the House, bound hand and foot, in the power of the Ministers, or it would beget most unseemly conflicts every day on the motion for going into a Committee. It would not take from the Members their power to move an adjournment, or to bring forward, if they saw fit, any matter of importance, as an amendment to the Order of the Day, as was frequently done last Session by the right hon. Baronet, the present First Lord of the Admiralty, and thus provoke a debate on any question, that from its merits ought to have a separate and distinct consideration. He hoped, that the understanding would be preferred to the order; and, in that case, he for one should offer no obstacle to the arrangement. As a proof, that the Opposition were not disposed to throw obstacles in the way of the Ministry, he would remind the Gentlemen opposite, that when it was proposed that the Reform Bill should come on at three o'clock, they objected to that as interfering with public business; and he and the Gentlemen on his side acquiesced in the Ministers' views, because he believed, that the time till four o'clock was required for public business. He would also remind hon. Members, that he had never brought forward any motion to interfere with the Reform Bill; although there were some matters of great importance, to which he was most anxious to call the attention of the House.

Lord Milton

admitted, that the order might be pregnant with inconvenience, and if its object could be otherwise obtained, his noble friend would do well to adopt the suggestion which had been thrown out. At the same time, it was necessary that something should be done to give satisfaction to the country, and get through the business, which might be accomplished by an understanding that the Reform measure should, on the days appointed for discussing it, take precedence of all other questions.

Mr. Hunt

had a motion standing for the 28th, on the subject of the Corn-laws, which he thought of quite as much consequence as the Reform Bill [a laugh]. If the hon. Member who laughed was living on half a bellyful, he would laugh on the other side of his mouth. He thought his motion of great consequence. He did not wish to throw any impediments in the way of the Reform Bill, but he wished, if he were not to bring forward his motion, that he should be bound by an order of the House, rather than trust to its discretion. He recommended the Gentlemen on his side, as they had no chance of success, to give up their opposition to the Bill, and allow the Ministers to pass the Bill on their responsibility. The public began to look with a little suspicion on the matter. They thought there was some tampering with the subject, some getting up of sham debates, or fighting in muffled gloves; and he would recommend that this sort of opposition be withdrawn. He would rather the House should meet at three o'clock; and, after sitting eight or nine hours, they would then have a chance of getting home and to bed about the hour that the thieves came abroad.

Sir Robert Peel

was satisfied, if the noble Lord would only trust to his own plain and unbiassed judgment, that he would find more facilities for carrying forward the measure, than by attending to the recommendations of the newspapers, and considering their suggestions. Let the noble Lord act on his own judgment, and disregard their advice—treating with indifference and contempt, as he (Sir Robert Peel) did, the shameful menaces by which it was attempted to deter Members of that House from performing their duty. The noble Lord had trusted the House, and what had been the consequence? A disposition had been excited, to throw no obstacles in his way, which had gone so far, that even petitions had not been presented, notices of motion had been waived, and no desire shown to delay the proceedings of the House. If they were told, however, that they were to surrender their judgment, and not examine into the details of a measure that was to give a new Constitution to the country, to that he could not agree, and of such a proceeding he entirely disapproved. That was not treating the important subject as it deserved; but any party who should propose measures for the purposes of delay would find them recoil on the proposers. At the same time, the subject should be fully and fairly considered. There were already several notices given of motions for Amendments of parts of the Bill; there were at least sixteen such notices; two had been given by the noble Lord (Milton); of these sixteen notices, no less than ten had been given by Gentlemen who voted for the second reading of the Bill, but who thought it right, that the subject should be brought under the consideration of the House in the same aspect as it appeared to them; if, out of those sixteen, ten were given by Gentlemen who were friendly to the principle of the Bill, was it fair—was it just, to impute to those who were not friendly to the Bill, who brought forward Amendments, a motive to delay it? It was said, that the Bill would be defeated by delay. What was the meaning of that? Had the Ministers not a majority to support the Bill? If it was meant, that by discussion the appetite for Reform would be abated, that would be due to the fair influence of reason, and nothing else. If the public should become as weary of the discussion as the House was—if they should look for some other topic of interest, some other cause of excitement, if that were to be the consequence of delay, it showed there was ground to doubt if the clamour for Reform was produced by the evils of the system, and shewed that those who dreaded delay had a conviction that it was a mere temporary excitement, which would die away before the voice of reason. He would do his best, however, to facilitate the object of the noble Lord, if the noble Lord was disposed not to press his Motion, to dispense with the order, and trust to an amicable understanding. Such an understanding had taken place last Session, and under it they had begun private business at three o'clock, and the public business at five; that had continued through the Session, without any inconvenience, and, therefore, he thought an amicable understanding would be better than an order of the House, establishing a most dangerous precedent, such as that proposed by the noble Lord. Besides, an order could not be efficacious, as the Members might insist on their right to bring forward any subject, or to present petitions, when the motion was made for going into the question of Reform. He was sure, that if the order were withdrawn, and an understanding agreed to, that would be adhered to. On all these grounds he must press the noble Lord to withdraw his Motion, and be content with an understanding that the business of Reform should have precedence of all other business.

Lord Althorp

said, that after the speeches of the two right hon. Gentlemen, he should be ready to withdraw his Motion, on the House coming to an understanding that the Reform Bill should go into a Committee every night on which it was to be discussed, at four o'clock [cries of "no, no!" and "five o'clock!"] He would agree, then, to five o'clock.

It being, therefore, an understanding that the Reform Bill should come on every evening at five o'clock, when it stood for discussions, the subject dropped.