HC Deb 05 March 1844 vol 73 cc583-90
Mr W. Williams

rose to bring forward the Motion of which he had given notice—namely, that no Motion, if opposed, shall be brought on and discussed in the House after midnight. In bringing forward such a Motion, he disclaimed all intention of interfering with those party discussions which were often prolonged to very unseasonable hours. He wished to confine his Motion to the practical business of the House, feeling convinced that every hon. Member who was in the habit of at- tending to the business of the House would admit, that the practice of bringing forward important business at a very late hour of the night, was not only most inconvenient to the House, but highly detrimental to the interests of the public. The system pursued in transacting the business of the House was in many respects most objectionable, and great alterations would have to be made before the business could be conducted in a manner beneficial to the interests of the country; but perhaps there was no part of the system which required amendment more than that which related to the late hours at which important business was often proceeded with. Referring to the proceedings of the last Session of Parliament, he found that the House sat 119 nights, and that its sittings after midnight amounted altogether to 105½ hours, being nearly one hour of sitting after midnight for each sitting of the House. He had often seen the necessity for some regulation to guide their proceedings with regard to business of importance brought on after midnight. He had often seen Bills of the utmost importance forced on the consideration of the House at one and two o'clock, and sometimes later, in defiance of every remonstrance against them; and he had also seen millions of the public money voted away at the same unseasonable hour, without any consideration for the interests of the country. At the unseasonable hours of one and two o'clock in the morning, he had seen Gentlemen come down to the House to vote on questions affecting the liberty, the property, and the lives of the people. They came from their balls, from the theatres, the opera, and from their parties, and voted on questions upon which they had no knowledge whatever. Such a state of things ought to be corrected, and he knew of no other means of effecting that correction except by limiting the time of business to something like reasonable hours. He had no objection to the discussions affecting the two great parties in the House being continued after midnight, or even to their being carried on till daylight peeped in at the windows, but he had decided objections to really important business being proceeded with at those unseasonable hours. Nature intended that men, instead of wasting their health and strength at these untimely hours, should refresh themselves in the night with sleep. He readily bore testimony to the constant attendance of both the right hon. Gentleman (Sir J. Graham) and the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government; they were found in their places at the earliest, as well as the latest hours, and they had given proofs of a physical strength which very much astonished him. He thought they ought to pay a little more attention to their comfort and to their health. They might be able at present to attend to their duties in this House at these unseasonable hours; but if they persevered in doing so, the time must come when their strength would fail them. If by their late sittings they in any way advanced the interests of the country, then it would, no doubt, be highly creditable and commendable for them to devote those late hours to the transaction of public business; but the very reverse was the case. Laws of the greatest public importance were passed whilst most Members on both sides of the House were fast asleep, and while others were so bewildered with drowsiness as hardly to be conscious of what was going on. The noble Lord the Member for London once said, that one effect of the Reform Bill would be, that Members, instead of coming down to the House at midnight to vote upon questions of which they knew nothing, would come down at proper hours and in a state of perfect sobriety and vote on questions which they did understand. The Reform Bill, however, had not fulfilled the prophecy of the noble Lord in this respect. What were the consequences of legislating at these unseasonable hours? How many defects did they not every now and then discover in the Acts passed by the House? Year after year a large portion of the time of the House was consumed in passing Bills, sometimes to amend Acts of a former Session, and sometimes to amend Acts even of the same Session. If Members had only consented to take those Bills into consideration at proper hours, such blunders would not have taken place; but, as it was, they passed Bills which were not intelligible to themselves, and which even the Judges could not understand. Not another country in Europe legislated in a similar manner. In France, Belgium, Holland—in all the states of Germany which possessed a legislative assembly—in the United States of America, and in all the civilised countries of the world which had a popular legislature, a different course was adopted from that pursued by this House of Commons; and not one of them passed their laws at the unseasonable hours at which the British Legislature did. In former and better days a different course was pursued, and business was proceeded with at proper hours. So late as 1702 the House used to meet about mid-day; and in 1714 there was a Standing Order of the House against proceeding with any order of the day after mid-day. He did not mean to say that they could conveniently meet at the present time at that early hour; but he thought that if they commenced business only one hour earlier than they now did, they would do away with the necessity of continuing their sittings to so late an hour as they now did. Towards the close of the last Session the House met at twelve o'clock of the day, and continued to sit till one or two o'clock in the morning; and he had seen business proceeded with at these hours when the whole Members of the Government who were present, and when every Member except the hon. Member for Salford and the Speaker, and the Gentlemen who had Bills to manage were fast asleep. It was at these hours that jobs and bad laws were smuggled through the House. Having seen the evil effects of the system, he begged leave to suggest what he thought would remedy them. He would suggest that they should assimilate the laws of the United Kingdom by making the laws for England, Scotland, and Ireland the same. Every reflecting Statesman would admit, that for our Legislature to pass different laws for the three divisions of the Kingdom was an unwise and injudicious mode of legislating. If the laws of Scotland had been assimilated to those of England at the time of the Union, and if the laws of Ireland had also been assimilated to those of England at the period of the Union, he felt convinced that they would have been enabled to govern the United Kingdom under one law. The hon. Member for Cork, the Representative of all Ireland, had often stated that the great grievance of Ireland was, that the same laws were not given to that country which were given to England. In his opinion, nothing could be more judicious than to make the law for England and for Ireland precisely the same. He had no hesitation in saying that at least one-fourth of the time of the present Session would be consumed in the discussion of two questions—the grievances of Ireland and the Corn Laws. It was evident that the grievances of Ireland must be set at rest, otherwise that country would prove a curse instead of a benefit to England. The present Corn Law could not stand; it must fall; and why should not Ministers meet those two important points at once and settle them? The public wished to sec these questions settled, and as they would be forced on the attention of Government, he thought they ought to take them up and settle them at once. By doing so they would save at least a fourth of the time of the Session. He would also recommend Government to bring in such Bills as they intended should pass at an earlier period of the Session, and to discontinue the practice of bringing in a great number of Bills which were never intended to be passed into laws. A great deal of the time of the House had hitherto been expended in the discussion of such Bills, which he thought might easily be saved. There was another point to which he begged to call the attention of Government. Since he had the honour of sitting in that House, he had invariably found that from four to five months were wasted by all manner of idle debates, and on questions in which the people felt no interest. Take, for instance, the Session of 1840, when hon. Gentlemen on the other side consumed pretty nearly the whole of the Session, so far as regarded the public interests, in the discussion of the most worthless motions, yet not altogether worthless to them, for their object was to get hold of place, power, and pelf, and they succeeded. A change of Ministry took place, and though hon. Gentlemen opposite had no doubt derived considerable advantage from the change, the country had gained no advantage whatever. He would just point out the amount of business done at various periods during the last Session. The Session commenced on the 3rd February. In the months of February, March, April, and May, only twenty-six Bills passed that House. In June, ten Bills passed; in July, twenty Bills; but in August, during the first three weeks of that month, forty-four Bills were passed, and sent to the other House of Parliament. It would thus appear that nearly half of the whole number of the Bills passed during the Session were passed in the last three weeks of it. No man could defend such a system. The House of Lords, while the present party were in power, made no scruple of passing the Bills sent up to them at the end of the Session; but every one might recollect that when the late Government pursued a similar course, a certain legal Lord in the other House used to take a review of those Bills, and toss them under the Table in bundles, on the ground that sufficient time had not been afforded for the consideration of them. He hoped that he had stated enough to show that great advantages would result from legislating for the people at proper hours, and he would therefore beg to move "That no motion, if opposed, shall be brought on and discussed in this House after midnight."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

could hardly believe, that the hon. Gentleman was serious; at all events the hon. Gentleman had stated no grounds to justify the House in assenting to it. The hon. Member deprecated the late sittings of the House, because the health of Her Majesty's Government might be seriously affected by their protracted attendance on the debates. On behalf of the Government he begged to tender his best thanks to the hon. Gentleman for the friendly anxiety he had shown upon this subject; but he must take leave to obesrve, that if there was one circumstance which, from long Parliamentary experience he could say, was more prejudicial than another to that health which the hon. Member was desirous to preserve, it was not so much the sitting to discuss matters at a late hour of the night, as being compelled to hear long speeches whether at a late or an early hour, which had no material reference to the business in hand. When an hon. Gentleman got up to discuss the question, whether new and opposed motions should be brought on after midnight, and treated them with dissertations on the Corn Laws, Irish affairs, and a variety of other irrelevant topics, he must fairly admit, although at that early hour—before the ordinary hour of refreshment—it did produce a state of weariness and fatigue greater than a more serious attention to the future real business of the day. If the House did do business at late hours of the night, it was owing to the very circumstance that the earlier parts of the evening were not so profitably occupied as they might be; and if they were to cut themselves off from the only resource which remained of doing business in cases of necessity, even at late hours, there would be no opportunity left of transacting public business at all. The hon. Gentleman had adopted rather an extraordinary mode of proving their inattention to business in that House, when he said, that in the course of the first three months of last Session only twenty-six bills had been passed, while towards the end of the Session, they passed a considerably greater number. The object was, that Bills should be well digested considered, and discussed: and if they were disposed of hastily at the beginning of the Session, there would be no opportunity of learning the sentiments of their constituents and the public in regard to them. It was, therefore, in this view alone a matter of some importance that it was competent to hon. Members to discuss matters brought forward more satisfactorily, by postponing the ultimate passing of Bills till a late period of the Session. If the hon. Member would take the trouble of looking through the Votes of the House he could find, that the subjects which occupied the House in debate after twelve o'clock where those commenced before that hour, and continued in order that a decision might be come to without the necessity of an adjourned debate. Speaking generally, he would find that after twelve o'clock all business not previously discussed, and which Members were desirous of discussing, was put off to meet the general convenience. There might undoubtedly be occasions when great public interests required that measures should be introduced at any hour, however late, and he did not think that the House, acting on the principle of doing what was most for the benefit of the community, would consent by a specific resolution, to debar themselves from entering upon their consideration. Upon the whole, therefore, he must say, as long as they had the good fortune of having among them the hon. Member for Salford, who exercised his functions with an amenity of manner and an intelligent consideration for the business of the country which entitled him to the highest praise, the hon. Member for Coventry might be quite satisfied to leave the matter to his discretion and good sense.

Mr. Brotherton

supposed his hon. Friend, seeing that little success had attended his Motion when introduced by him on former occasions, had now come forward with his powerful aid, in the hope of having a larger majority, and he hoped such would be the case. He certainly supported the Motion with considerable pleasure, because he felt, if it were adopted, it would be exceedingly useful. If they were to adjourn at an earlier period it would facilitate the business of the House, and conduce to the health and comfort of Members, while in no way could it operate prejudicially to the public interests. He was reminded on this occasion of a Message sent down to that House by Queen Elizabeth, recommending the Members of that House not to consume so much time in making long speeches and Motions; and if a similar message should come down from our beloved Queen he should be very happy to join in voting an Address of Thanks to Her Majesty. He was sure that the speeches of hon. Gentlemen might be very much curtailed. He was not favourable to bringing forward any useless motions, he wished as much as possible to get on with the business, and he conceived that the efforts he had made with reference to the adjournment of the House had had the effect, not of retarding, but facilitating the public business. They often praised the wisdom of their ancestors, and certainly they had the wisdom to legislate in the day-time. Why should not we follow their example? There was one mode of accomplishing the end in view which he had no objection to append to the Motion of his hon. Friend. It was well known that the House could not adjourn till four o'clock in the afternoon. Their ancestors assembling at seven or eight o'clock in the morning were determined the House should not continue to sit after four o'clock P.M., unless forty Members were present, and a rule was made, that unless that number were present at that hour the House should stand adjourned. In order to keep within the clear rule, he would suggest that after midnight the House should not continue to sit unless 80 Members were present, and that would be a good security. At the same time he honestly confessed, that he thought it perfectly hopeless to expect to pass a resolution like that of his hon. Friend in that House; but he did feel gratified at the general concurrence which prevailed that they should as nearly as possible adjourn at twelve o'clock. Although he had not succeeded to the extent of his wishes, yet he rejoiced in the general opinion which had now gained so much ground, that, unless engaged in business of very particular importance, no obstruction would be made to adjournment at that hour. He certainly wished to see this Motion carried; but if it was not, while he had the honour of a seat in that House, he should always endeavour to press upon it the importance of adjourning at or before midnight.

The House divided.—Ayes 16; Noes 146: Majority 130.

List of the AYES.
Aldam, W. Ewart, W.
Bowring, Dr. Fielder, J.
Byng, rt. hn. G. S. Hill, Lord M.
Collett, J. James, W.
Crawford, W. S. Morris, D.
Dennistoun, J. Morrison, J.
Scholefield, J.
Trelawney, J. S. TELLERS.
Wawn, J. T. Williams, W.
Yorke, H. R. Brotherton, J.
List of the NOES.
Ainsworth, P. Greenall, P.
Allix, J. P. Greene, T.
Antrobus, E. Halford, H.
Arkwright, G. Hamilton, W. J.
Ashley, Lord Hanmer, Sir J.
Astell, W. Hardinge, rt.hn. Sir H.
Baillie, Col. Hardy, J.
Barclay, D. Hastie, A.
Baring, rt. hn. F. T. Hawes, B.
Beckett, W. Hay, Sir A. L.
Bernal, R. Hodgson, F.
Boldero, H. G. Hodgson, R.
Borthwick, P. Hope, hon. C.
Botfield, B. Hornby, J.
Bradshaw, J. Houldsworth, T.
Bramston, T. W. Hughes, W. B.
Brownrigg, J. S. Hussey, T.
Bruce, Lord E. Hutt, W.
Buck, L. W. Irving, J.
Buller, E. Jocelyn, Visct.
Bunbury, T. Johnstone, Sir J.
Burrell, Sir C. M. Johnstone, H.
Charteris, hon. F. Langstone, J. H.
Chute, W. L. W. Lascelles, hon. W. S.
Clerk, Sir G. Lemon, Sir C.
Clive, Visct. Lincoln, Earl of
Clive, hon. R. H. McGeachy, F. A.
Cochrane, A. Mackenzie, W. F.
Colebrooke, Sir T. E. Mackinnon, W. A.
Copeland, Mr. Ald. McNeill, D.
Corry, rt. hn. H. Mahon, Visct.
Craig, W. G. Mangles, R. D.
Cripps, W. Manners, Lord J.
Damer, hon. Col. Majoribanks, S.
Darby, G. Marsham, Visct.
Davies, D. A. S. Marton, G.
Dickinson, F. H. Mildmay, H. St. J.
D'Israeli Miles, W.
Douglas, Sir H. Morgan, O.
Douglas, Sir C. E. Mundy, E. M.
Duncan, G. Nicholl, rt. hon. J.
Duncannon, Visct. O'Brien, A. S.
Duncombe, hon. A. Pakington, J. S.
Ebrington, Visct. Palmer, G.
Eliot, Lord Patten, J. W.
Escott, B. Peel, rt. hn. Sir R.
Estcourt, T. G. B. Peel, J.
Evans, W. Pennant, hon. Col.
Fellowes, E. Plumptre, J. P.
Forster, M. Pringle, A.
Fuller, A. E. Rashleigh, W.
Gardner, J. D. Rendlesham, Lord
Gaskell, J. Milnes Repton, G. W. J.
Gladstone,rt.hn.W.E. Richards, R.
Glynne, S. R. Rous, hon. Capt.
Gordon, hon. Capt. Russell, J. D. W.
Gore, M. Scarlett, hon. R.
Gore, hon. R. Shirley, E. J.
Goring, C. Shirley, E, P.
Goulburn, rt. hn. H. Smith, A.
Graham, rt, hn. Sir J. Smith, J. A.
Smith, rt. hn. T. B. C. Warburton, H.
Smythe, hon. G. Ward, H. G.
Smollett, A. Wellesley, Lord C.
Somerset, Lord G. Winnington, Sir T. E.
Stanley, Lord Wood, Col. T.
Stuart, H. Worsley, Lord
Strutt, E. Wortley, hn. J. S.
Sutton, hon. H. M. Wrighton, W. B.
Thornely, T. Wyndham, Col. C.
Towneley, J. Yorke, hon. E. T.
Trotter, J.
Tufnell, H. TELLERS.
Wall, C. B. Fremantle, Sir T.
Walsh, Sir J. B. Baring, H.