HC Deb 23 January 1838 vol 40 cc353-8
Mr. P. Thomson

rose, in conformity with the notice which he had given, to move certain resolutions which had for their object to give effect to the decision of the Committee which sat on private business last year. Their object was, that a breviate of a Private Bill should be laid on the table of the House in a printed form, and that a certain time should be allowed between the printing and the second reading of the bill. He should move first, then, "That no Private Bill be read a second time until six days after a breviate thereof shall have been laid on the table of the House, and have been printed." He should then proceed to state in the resolution what such breviate should contain; namely, "a statement of the object of the bill, a summary of the proposed enactments, and any variation from the general law which shall be effected by the bill." The Committee had come to the recommendations which he had stated by reason of the extreme inconvenience which arose from private bills being smuggled through the second reading, without the House being generally or at all informed of the contents of such bills. It was true, that the House, after any private bill being reported of a character to attract discussion, might become acquainted with its contents; but at the same time he heard constantly this argument raised, after a bill containing many objectionable clauses, had passed through the Committee, but was opposed on bringing up the report, "If you objected to the principle of this bill, why did you not stop it at the second reading? And are you not now inflicting great hardship on parties, by rejecting this bill, after you compelled them to go through the expense and inconvenience of a Committee?" There was, besides, a particular class of bills of very great importance, with respect to the principle of which it was material that the House should be perfectly well acquainted before the second reading, because it frequently happened that these private bills were of a character to affect the public interest, and yet did not meet with any opposition from private interests in Committee. The consequence was, that after such a private bill came out of Committee, or was smuggled through, or (not to use a harsh phrase) passed without having attention called to it on the second reading, it passed also on the report without any observation, and an act of great public injustice was thus inflicted. He had had occasion, with reference to more than one bill, to point out the extreme inconvenience to which the present practice gave rise; and he felt convinced that he could not quote a stronger instance than the Fish-guard Bill of last Session presented, either as the circumstances appeared from his statement, or as they came within the knowledge of the parties interested in that measure. It had been suggested by many Gentlemen who took an interest in this subject that we ought to do something more than was proposed with regard to furnishing a breviate on the second reading, and that after the bill passed through Committee, and on the motion that the report should be received, another breviate should be made out, in order that the House might know whether any important changes were introduced in Committee. To that proposition he was very much inclined to assent, because a practice had arisen of introducing private bills in the most careless possible form, the parties trusting to any alteration that might take place in the Committee; and, under these circumstances, a breviate before the second reading would not answer the whole purpose which was in view. But he did not think it advisable at that stage of the proceeding to pass a resolution to that effect. His third resolution was for the purpose of asking the Speaker "to give such directions as shall seem to him best for carrying into effect the above resolutions." He meant to request the Speaker, if he would be good enough to do so, to make such arrangements as to ensure that a breviate should not be, as now, a mere abstract of the marginal notes of the private bill, containing little or no information, but that it should really contain an account of the object for which it professed to provide, and above all a statement showing how the general law of the country was proposed to be altered by a private bill at the suit of individuals. The form, therefore, of the breviate would require to be well considered. He was also well aware that great care and attention would be required in the preparation of bills, and that the most intelligent persons should be employed for that purpose; but these were the details of arrangement in a plan for the execution of which the House reposed perfect confidence in the Speaker, being satisfied that, as he consented to give his attention to the subject, he would do all he could to ensure that the object which the House had in view should be carried out by the persons employed on this business. It was impossible that Gentlemen who had attended to the private business of the House should omit to notice the great care and attention which the Speaker paid to this part of their proceedings, or to say how very much all the Members interested in this business stood indebted to him for that care and attention. When he alluded, however, to such Members, he did not mean that they were the only parties who owed a debt of gratitude to the Speaker for the manner in which he discharged his duties in this respect; more than that, the House itself was deeply indebted to him. Nothing was more important to the dignity and honour of the House than that the very important part of its proceedings, the private business, should be conducted in a proper and orderly manner. He thought, therefore, that the best way to attain the object which they had in view was to authorise the Speaker to make such arrangements as he thought necessary.

Mr. Hume

expressed his desire to know who was to draw the Bill, and who to examine it, because he feared that the present proposition would only give additional machinery in the conduct of the private business, without making it at all more clear. He was quite satisfied, that the evils which existed in the present system would be removed by having two, three, or five persons held responsible for the preparation of private bills, and that such measures should not be submitted to the superintendence of 120 Members, who attended at different times, and were, therefore, obliged to depend on some clerk or lawyer for information. Was the Speaker to examine all bills to see whether the breviate was a faithful one? For his part, he thought the second breviate more important than the first. He thought, if Committees were limited to a small number of responsible persons, their proceedings would be much more creditable to the House than those which now took place.

Mr. Aglionby

begged to call the attention of the House to the evidence taken before a Committee which sat two Sessions ago, of which he was chairman, not as to public or private acts, but as to the wording of Acts of Parliament. He then understood the noble Lord, the Secretary of State to say, that though he did not wish, at that time, to originate a measure which would give a commission or a single officer the power of preparing Acts of Parliament, yet he would give the matter his best consideration. He was somewhat disappointed, that the noble Lord had not brought forward a measure on this subject. It was not his intention to oppose the resolutions, which he considered valuable so far as they went.

Sir R. Peel

did not make the slightest objection to the trial of the experiment which was proposed. He presumed, that it was intended that a particular officer whose especial duty it should be to prepare a breviate should be appointed, and that it should not be left to the parties who were the authors of the private Bill. He presumed, also, that the officer selected would be a man of experience and high character. But, at the same time, that he felt perfectly confident that the instructions which such an officer would receive would be such as from the experience and knowledge of the Speaker might be expected, and also that the officer would be himself unexceptionable in point of character. He could not, however, conceal that the task which was imposed on the Speaker was a very difficult one. He was afraid that in giving a short and clear breviate which would afford an insight into the provisions of the Bill, the mischief which now frequently resulted from singled expressions being used and the force of which was not discovered until the measure came into operation, however cognizant of their effect the promoters of these bills might be, would not be effectually avoided.

Lord G. Somerset

thought, that the breviate, if introduced on the report, would be a better safeguard against objectionable provisions than if it were limited to the second reading.

Mr. S. Lefevre

said, that every one acquainted with the manner of conducting the private business in that House must be aware that exaggerated statements were often put into Members' hands by the promoters of private bills. But a breviate, drawn up by an experienced officer, would at once inform the House of the nature and character of the proposed measure. He felt that they had cast great responsibility on the officer who was to prepare this document, and who ought to be a man of great experience and skill; but when he knew the matter was placed in the hands of the Speaker he felt perfectly satisfied.

Mr. P. Thomson, in explanation, stated that he meant to propose the second breviate as soon as arrangements were made for the plan which he had now submitted.

Resolutions agreed to.

The Speaker

said: As the House has imposed on me a heavy and responsible duty, I think it right they should clearly understand the view I take of the question. If a breviate, such as that expressed in the resolutions, were to be proposed, pointing out any change which private bills might effect in, the general law of the country, it-was obvious that no such instrument could be introduced, unless it was proposed by a responsible person, and one well versed in the law. It appears to me, that in carrying into effect this experiment, which is in entire accordance with my own opinion, there will be great difficulty in getting a person qualified for the duty, because a qualified person will be loath to undertake it for one Session. All I can say is, that having stated the obstacle which appears to me to be in the way of giving effect to these resolutions, I shall contribute whatever services are in my power to meet the wishes of the House.

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