HC Deb 06 February 1833 vol 15 cc219-27
Lord Althorp

said, that in rising to propose the Sessional Orders for the present year, he did not apprehend it was necessary now to enter into the discussion of all, as he intended first to propose an order to which due regard must be had, as it related to the business of the House. There was no duty more imperative or important than that of hearing the petitions of the people, and he was sure that when he addressed himself to those hon. Members who sat in the last Parliament, they were well aware of the great inconvenience arising from the mode in which petitions were then presented. It was inconvenient, not only as regarded the consideration of the petitions themselves, but equally so from the interference that arose to the other legislative functions of the House. The evils which had arisen it had been endeavoured, during the last Parliament, to remedy, and various modes had been proposed—one, that the order of presenting petitions should be fixed by ballot, but this had not been found effective. That system, moreover, was not consonant to the feelings of many Members. The fact was, that great difficulty was experienced in the presentation of petitions. Members attended, day after day, for weeks together, without the possibility of presenting petitions intrusted to them. It was suggested that petitions might be presented after the regular notices and orders of the House were concluded; but it was quite clear that petitions of special interest and importance could not be presented at such a time with any effect—certainly their contents could not be discussed. In consequence of the difficulty by which the subject was beset, a right hon. Baronet called for the appointment of a Committee to examine it. A Committee was accordingly appointed to inquire in what manner the business could be best expedited, and they took the whole question into consideration. That Committee recommended, that petitions should be presented to a Committee of the whole House, which should sit during the morning to receive petitions, and which should be dissolved when the Speaker took the Chair. It was not, however, deemed fitting to adopt such a change as that. He was of opinion that petitions should be presented when the House was regularly formed, and the Speaker was in the Chair. That had always been the case, and it was most desirable that it should still continue to be the course adopted. The plan which he should have the honour to propose, and which had been printed for the information of Members, was, in the first instance, that the petitions should be presented when the Speaker was in the Chair. The difficulty was, whether or not petitions should be presented in the ordinary time of the sitting of the House. At present the presentation of petitions extended to so late an hour of the evening that it interfered with the public business, which was in consequence much retarded. His proposition was, that Members who had petitions to present should place their names on the Speaker's paper, de die in diem, and that they should be heard in regular rotation. In that way every Gentleman would have an opportunity to present petitions. They might undoubtedly be somewhat delayed, but not for so long a time as was experienced under the present system; for, as the business was now arranged, if a Gentleman did not come down very early to place his name on the list, he might be delayed till it was no longer in his power to present his petitions. His proposition was, that the Speaker should take the Chair each day at twelve o'clock, and sit till three, for receiving petitions and despatching private business; that, at three o'clock, he should adjourn the House, and that whatever debate, on a petition, might happen at that time to be before the House, should be adjourned till the next day; that the House should reassemble at five o'clock, when the orders or notices should be immediately proceeded with. There would, he conceived, by such an arrangement, be ample time for the purposes of discussion, without sitting up very late at night. He thought it desirable that this distinction should take place between presenting petitions and the proceeding with public business. By this plan Gentlemen would have an opportunity of addressing the House on the subject of petitions without retarding the progress of public business, which would commence at five o'clock. He confessed that he had been guilty of not attending so much to petitions as he ought perhaps to have done; but, situated as he was, it was impossible for him, under the existing system, to attend to his official duties, to be present early and late in the House, and at the same time to take any refreshment. By his proposition, however, two hours would be allowed between the presentation of petitions and the commencement of public business. He himself, or some other of his Majesty's Ministers, would be present when petitions were introduced. It was important that it should be so, and he was sorry that such was not the case in former Sessions of Parliament. He felt considerable reluctance, when a Committee of that House had offered certain suggestions on this subject, to be compelled to declare that he could not accede to them. He conceived it to be very important that petitions should be presented when the Speaker was in the Chair, and he did not think it would be so well if they were presented in Committee. As to the number of times a Gentleman was now allowed to speak on the presentation of a petition, it was a point that deserved correction. At present a Member might speak four times on such an occasion; that surely was not necessary, and such a privilege certainly delayed "the business of the House. By the proposition which he should make, a Member, on presenting a petition, would have the right of speaking twice—first, on the Motion that the petition be laid on the Table; and again, if he deemed it necessary that the petition should be printed, on moving that question. The noble Lord then moved—"That this House do meet every day (except Saturday), at twelve o'clock at noon, for private business, and for receiving petitions, and do continue to sit until three o'clock unless sooner adjourned. That, at three o'clock precisely, Mr. Speaker do adjourn the House, and leave the Chair without putting any question for adjournment, "That the business then before the House be taken up on the next day, and have precedence in respect of other business of the same kind. 'That the House be adjourned only till five o'clock, and that it do then meet and proceed with the business set down in the Order-book. That if a House is not formed before one o'clock for the sitting between twelve and three o'clock, Mr. Speaker do then take the Chair; and if forty Members be not present, do adjourn the House till five o'clock; and, in like manner, if the House is not formed at six o'clock for the sitting in the evening, Mr. Speaker do then take the Chair; and if forty Members are not present, do adjourn the House till twelve o'clock next day. That Committees do sit from nine o'clock till twelve, and from three till five. That no Committee do sit during the sitting of the House, without the special leave of the House."

Sir Robert Peel

said, if an arrangement could be made really conducive to the convenience of Members, and which would have the effect of expediting the business of the House, he certainly should, without hesitation, agree to it. The plan which was now proposed required, in his mind, much consideration, and he did not think that he was at all premature in making some observations on it thus early. It should be recollected that there were now in that House 300 new Members who possessed very little experience; and was it right, without further consideration, that they should adopt such an arrangement? If they called on those new Members for their concurrence, they themselves, perhaps, would doubt whether they were competent to decide on such a question. He very much doubted whether they had read the Report of the Committee of last Session—a Committee which was composed of individuals most deeply experienced in the business of the House. He did not ask any one to decide on the merits of the new plan; but he would demand of the House whether those who came there with very little experience of parliamentary business were competent to decide on it at that moment? If the noble Lord proposed that public business should commence bonâ fide at ten or eleven o'clock, it was easy to deal with so plain a proposition. But, if the mode which was now proposed were adopted, he was perfectly convinced that, in point of fact, the public business would be daily postponed, till six o'clock in the evening. By another part of the plan, Committees were to be formed at nine o'clock in the morning, to sit until twelve, and again from three o'clock until five o'clock. Now, Gentlemen had much pressing and important business to transact. They had to read their letters in the morning, and to answer them. The letters would, of course, be brought to the Committee-room, and the two first hours, he would be bound to say, would be occupied, not with the business of the Committee, but in answering those letters. This was a very large town, and many Members residing at a distance could not attend without great inconvenience. Those who lived in the vicinity of the House might attend easily, but Gentlemen who lived at a distance of three or four miles would be very much incommoded. It would be taxing human strength too much to require attendance at nine o'clock, after a late sitting. If they did not look practically to these points, it was clear that any plans they might make must fail. He admitted the principle, that petitions should be presented in full House, the Speaker being in the Chair. He knew not how the noble Lord, or any official man, could perform his duties under the proposed system. At nine o'clock he might be called on to attend a Committee; he would come down stairs at twelve, and remain in the House till three; he would then have two hours for Cabinet Councils, and other important matters; and then, at five, he made his appearance for the purpose of taking a share in the general business of the House. He asserted that it was impossible to expect that any Minister of the Crown would or could proceed in this manner. They all knew that the subjects of petitions related to different departments of Government—they all were aware, that when questions were asked, a Minister frequently said, "I cannot answer till the head of the department is present." Under the proposed system, this circumstance would occur more frequently than ever. He therefore asked, whether it was possible, under all the circumstances, such a system could give satisfaction? Again, it was proposed positively to adjourn from three o'clock till five. Now, if it happened that there was a full attendance of Members, and a discussion arose, a political discussion, connected with the contents of a petition, the debate, it appeared, was to be broken up the moment three o'clock arrived. Would those, he demanded, who were occupied in that discussion meet on the following lowing day, ready to proceed with it? Or would they meet with the same tone and temper of mind? There was another point to which he would draw the attention of the House. He had no doubt whatever of the self-devotion of the Speaker; but when they called on him to take the Chair from twelve till three, and to resume it at five o'clock, they were taxing the physical health and strength of a public functionary to too great an extent. The only time, under such circumstances, when a Member could call on that right hon. Gentleman for information on private business, would be before twelve o'clock in the morning, unless such information was irregularly, called for when he was in the Chair. He hoped the noble Lord would postpone his proposition, and give the new Members the benefit of the experience of three weeks or a month. By that time Gentlemen would have an opportunity of judging of the probable number of petitions that were likely to come before the House.

Mr. O'Connell

observed, that he had been a member of the Committee of last Session, to which allusion had been made, but he took very little part in its proceedings. Some mode ought certainly to be adopted for expediting the business. He had sat as many hours in that House since he came into Parliament as any other Member, and the inconvenience to him was extremely great. The old system was, to present petitions after the general business of the House had terminated. The consequence was that petitions were presented to empty benches. As to the number of petitions likely to be presented this Session, he could say, for himself, that he had enough to occupy a fortnight or three weeks. It would be well to consider whether, during three days in the week, they might not meet at ten o'clock; and, lest their might be a difficulty in making a House, they should frame a law, or order, declaring that the day after the failure of collecting forty Members, the House should be called over, and every Member who could not give a sufficient excuse for his absence should be taken into custody. On these three days two hours might be set apart for petitions, and from twelve o'clock to eight might be devoted to public business. He would suggest that, on the alternate days, the House should not sit at all, but that the different Committees should proceed with business. An immense expense with reference to private business would thus be saved, because the attendance of witnesses and of legal persons would be very much shortened. They would, by this plan, have three full working days (not nights) in the week, and they would also have three additional days for Committees. Let not the English Members talk of the inconvenience they suffered from the present system—the Irish Members suffered much more. He was 520 miles from his place of residence; and many other Irish Members were similarly situated. They were willing, however, to bear the inconvenience until a mode should be devised that by expediting the business, would lessen it. He was ready to postpone the plan, which he had thus suggested to the House, for a few days, in order that it might be considered. He was not singular in the view which he took; and, he believed, at the proper time, it would be well supported. When Irish business came on, he thought that he should be going very far if he did not move the adjournment of the House before nine o'clock. Not only the Irish Members, but many English Members would, he believed, agree with his proposition. Up to the year 1792, the Order of the Day was read at one o'clock. It was since that time that they had fallen into night sittings. Important business was not, in consequence, now done as formerly. Many measures were merely voted, almost without debate or investigation, by Ministers who acted on their own responsibility.

Colonel Davies

said, that he was not only a Member of the Committee of last Session, but, unlike, the learned Member, he had submitted many suggestions to it. He expressed his belief, that under the system proposed by the noble Lord, there never would be a full attendance of Members at the presentation of petitions unless force were resorted to. It was not likely that individuals would attend to hear discussions on petitions with which they had no concern. If, however, they were obliged to attend by force at an early hour, would they not afterwards come to the consideration of the public business wearied and tired? Besides, there were many useful professional Members of the House whose engagements would not allow them to come down. The gallant Officer then referred to the journals, and showed by certain entries of the year 1640, that repeated instances occurred where orders were made for the reception of petitions by Committees. Why should not a grand Committee be appointed, of which five should be a quorum, to meet on certain days, for the purpose of receiving petitions? The petitions might be classified, and days appointed for each description of petition, whether connected with the colonial or any other particular interest. By adopting that mode, the presence of the Minister at the head of the department to which the particular petitions referred might always be secured.

Lord Althorp

was willing, after what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet, to postpone the debate, not for three weeks, but till this day fortnight.

Mr. Littleton

expressed himself in favour of a delay of three weeks.

Mr. Wilks

was favourable to that part of the plan which limited Gentlemen who presented petitions to two speeches.

Sir J. Fremantle

thought it would be better to postpone the consideration of the subject for three weeks.

The Debate postponed to this day fortnight.

Lord Althorp

next moved the following resolution—"That when the contents of a petition have been opened, and the prayer stated by the Member who may have the charge of such petition, Mr. Speaker do de-sire such Member to bring the same to the Table, and do then direct the clerk to read it, without allowing any other Member to speak, or putting any question upon such petition, before the same shall have been read, unless it should appear to Mr. Speaker, or to any Member, that the matter of such petition was in breach of the privilege of the House, or that, according to the rules and orders of the House, such petition ought not to be received; in which cases the question 'That the petition be brought up' be put and agreed to, before such petition be brought up."

Mr. Warburton

thought, that the resolution would allow the Gentleman presenting a Petition to speak three times—first, on presenting the Petition; second, on the question that it be laid on the Table; and, third, on the Motion that it be printed.

The Speaker

said, the Resolution only conceded the right to speak twice. In the first instance, the Member would only state the contents of the petition and its prayer; it would be then read at the Table, and no Member would be allowed to speak, or put any question relative to the petition, unless it contained matter in breach of the privileges of the House, or was of such a nature as that, according to the rules and orders of the House, it could not be received. The Member could only speak on the questions "that the Petition do lie on the Table," and "that the Petition be printed."

Mr. Wynn

thought, that as it might happen that there would be something objectionable in a petition, it might not be possible, if this Resolution should be carried, to ascertain the fact previous to laying it on the Table.

Lord Althorp

said, that there would not be more difficulty in ascertaining that fact than there was at present, for as the usage at present stood, they could only tell what were the contents of a petition from the speech of the Member that presented it, unless there happened to be an adjourned debate upon it.

Resolution agreed to.