HC Deb 07 June 1852 vol 122 cc133-44

Mr. Speaker, I promised to state to-day to the House the views of Her Majesty's Government with respect to the business that is before the House, with the view of expediting its despatch. It was my intention originally to have selected this day to express those views. I thought that as soon after the holydays as prac- ticable it would be desirable that we should come to some conclusion on this subject; but why I fixed on this day was that I thought the House would be indisposed to have the explanation of the views of Government made on the day of meeting, and that it would be more convenient, instead of taking the fag-end of the week, to select the first Monday after we assembled for business for that purpose. But if it had not been my intention to fix on this day, it would not have been possible for me to avoid the performance of this duty after the memorable appeal made by a right hon. Baronet the Member for Ripon (Sir James Graham) on the reassembling of the House. That right hon. Gentleman is one who necessarily and justly exercises a very great influence over the opinion of this House; and, though indeed he is listened to with great respect upon all subjects, on none is his opinion more regarded than on the conduct of public business. The statement of that right hon. Gentleman was calculated very much to arrest public attention,, and to produce a very considerable effect upon the House, especially among those not very familiar with the details of the subjects upon which the right hon. Gentleman spoke. Certainly, he conveyed an impression to the House and to the country that the state of public business was extremely unsatisfactory; that there was a vast accumulation of business, with a very slender prospect of its being disposed of, and that if the termination of the present Session, which seems now pretty-well agreed on, and which we are all anticipating, occurs at the time expected, there would be no possibility of dealing with the accumulation of business before the House, all of which, as the right hon. Gentleman very truly stated, was of a highly important and pressing character. The right hon. Gentleman said, on that occasion, that he felt deeply on the subject; that he viewed the present state of business with great apprehension; and that it was with no ordinary feelings of apprehension and upon no ordinary subject that he spoke—because it was not the mere reputation of this particular House which was at stake, in the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman—though the reputation of even this House, I think, must be dear to him—but (if I am not misrepresenting him) he went so far as to say that he really feared that if we did not take care we should bring representative government itself into dis- repute. And, that there may be no mistake on the matter, I will quote the words which the right hon. Gentleman stated: what he feared was— This assembly, which has been the great landmark of representative government and the great example of representative assemblies throughout the world, will be brought into disrepute; —because we should appear to the world to be unable to transact the public business. Now, Sir, it would be—it must be—a most serious state of affairs which could warrant such words from such a man. The right hon. Gentleman did not confine himself on that occasion—listened to as he was with becoming attention by the House,—to a mere general expression of the apprehensions under which he was suffering. He went into very great detail on the subject; he took a minute review of the state of the business before the House; he called the attention of the House to the various subjects before them, grouping the several Bills on all important matters in that clear and perspicuous manner which he always commands; and he laid down the data from which he drew the inference he communicated to us; and which, in his opinion, warranted the apprehensions he felt. Indeed, I read in a very great authority on the day following that it was evidently an herculean task to deal with the business before the House of Commons; and that even to form a catalogue of it, or to enumerate it in detail, required the colossal power of intellect for which we are all willing to give the right hon. Gentleman credit. Under these circumstances, I felt an unusual responsibility placed upon me in the position in which I stand, and for which I am every day more aware I am little qualified. I felt it was a terrible responsibility to incur, that under the guidance which I had been able to give to the business of the House, by the advice of my Colleagues, and assisted by the kindness of hon. Members on both sides of the House, I had brought public business not only to a standstill, but even to a perilous and disgraceful position. Well, Sir, under that feeling I have examined with all the assiduity the circumstances of the case required, the state of public business before us. Peeling that I am responsible for its general position, I have endeavoured to see if I could in some degree escape from the consequences of neglect of duty, or from the results of that incapacity with which, though the right hon. Gentleman was courteous enough not to charge me, he must have felt I was liable to be accused of. Under the challenge and appeal of the right hon. Gentleman, I will examine very briefly the business now before us, and the prospects I have ventured to form of the ultimate fate of all the Bills to which he referred. I will follow the order taken by the right hon. Gentleman, because it is now familiar to the House, and I do not think that any suggestion of mine would make it more clear. On the evening referred to, the right hon. Gentleman very particularly and very justly impressed on the House the importance of the Bills for legal reform which are before us—Bills probably inferior in importance to no business before the House, and which some may lament should have been brought forward under the circumstances in which the present House of Commons now meets. The right hon. Gentleman, on Thursday, called the attention of the House to three of these Bills: 1st, to the Common Law Procedure Amendment Bill; secondly, to the Equitable Jurisdiction Bill; and, thirdly, to the Bill for the Abolition of Masters in Chancery. The right hon. Gentleman said, to use his own phrase, and to pursue his own terse and expressive language, "Not one step has yet been taken in this House with regard to any one of these three Bills beyond their introduction." He expressed a hope on Thursday that I would on Monday be able to give some information on this subject; and I have now the pleasure of reminding the right hon. Gentleman that as to the Common Law Procedure Bill, the Equitable Jurisdiction Bill, and the Bill for the Abolition of Masters' Office in Chancery, with respect to which not one step had been taken, very important steps have been taken in the interval, and all three have been read a second time. But there were two other measures of legal reform beside those three to which the right hon. Gentleman first referred—the Suitors in Chancery Relief Bill, and the Bill respecting alterations in the Law of Wills. As the right hon. Gentleman—so great an authority upon all subjects, but on the subject of legal reform the very highest in this House—said on Thursday, it was impossible to exaggerate the magnitude, difficulty, and importance of those questions. Well, on this present Monday, I have the pleasure of informing the right hon. Gentleman that those two Bills, the magnitude, difficulty, and importance of which, to use his own language, could not be exaggerated, have entirely passed through this House. So much for these important Bills on legal reform: two of them having entirely passed the House of Commons, three of them having been read a second time, and no material opposition being anticipated to their progress, I think Her Majesty's Government are not arrogant or presumptuous in assuming that these five important measures for the reform of the law will pass the Legislature and become law without at all interfering with that termination of Parliament which is now so rife in every one's mouth. Well, the right hon. Gentleman then proceeded, with all the clearness which characterises his mature statements, to another important group of Bills which were still on the table—those which he described as Colonial Bills. On Thursday last, calling on me on Monday to give an account of the intentions of Her Majesty's Government, with that influence with became his position, he reminded the House of the New Zealand Bill, the importance of which was only equalled by the number of its clauses, and said that he expected that on Monday some idea would be given by Government what their intentions were with respect to that important Bill. Sir, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is a Bill of the utmost importance, and I should deplore the circumstance that this Bill, which attempts to establish a right principle of Colonial Administration, under happy auspices, should be defeated by any occurrence connected with the abrupt termination of Parliament. But, Sir, what is the bulletin of Monday night upon this subject—that night upon which I was called upon to state exactly the intentions of Government with regard to public business. The New Zealand Bill has not only got into Committee, but has nearly got through Committee. In fact I may say, that out of more than 80 clauses, 72 have been disposed of; and, with the exception of some which refer to what may be almost called a private and a local subject, the great questions connected with this Bill, which is to give a new constitution to an interesting colony—the great questions are all settled in this House; and it is hardly possible to conceive that the state in which the New Zealand Bill is now found can at all justify Her Majesty's Government in relinquishing the hope of speedily passing this Bill through the House. Then, there is another colonial measure, also re- ferred to by the right hon. Gentleman—the Hereditary Casual Revenues Bill, which, to use the language of the right hon. Gentleman, is a measure of "primary importance." Now, perhaps, the House will allow me to remind them of the nature of this Bill. The Law Officers of the Crown have expressed to Her Majesty's Government their doubts, and more than doubts, whether those branches of casual revenue, which have now assumed very great importance in the auriferous colonies of Australia, might not be, by the strict letter of the law, applicable to the Consolidated Fund, instead of being applied, as Her Majesty's Government wish, to the benefit of the colony from which they spring. No one can doubt but that this is an object to attain which will not excite any very great party feeling, or receive an}' very great opposition; and when I mention that the Bill which is to confer this highly beneficial and advantageous privilege upon the colonies is composed of only two clauses, it is not a very presumptuous expectation on the part of Her Majesty's Government to hope that they may be as successful with it as they have hitherto been in that foremost Bill with regard to colonial legislation relating to New Zealand. There are two other Government Bills which the right hon. Gentleman referred to as connected with the Colonies, and really, except that the word "bishop" does appear in the titles of these Bills—and I know how unfortunate that word sometimes is in exciting debate in this House, and in calling forth the irregular energy of the hon. and learned Member for Youghal—I should hardly suppose that there will be any opposition to these two Bills. One of them, the Bishopric of Quebec Bill, is in fact only to take care that in a diocese already divided, one of the bishops should not retain the whole of the episcopal property, but should divide it with his brother bishop; and I should hardly think that this measure would be opposed, more especially as it consists only of two clauses, and has already passed the other House of Parliament. I think, therefore, it is not rash to suppose that even that Bill may soon pass into a law without at all procrastinating the conclusion of the Session. There is a fourth Bill, called the Colonial Bishops' Bill, and that is a measure which is also of very small dimensions, its only object being to relieve the Indian bishops from the disability which, in the case of the other colonial bishops, does not exist, for the latter are not prevented from officiating in the dioceses of other bishops, as the Indian bishops are. It is therefore a Bill essentially just in its provisions. It is one which I cannot say is of that urgent nature which, generally speaking, all the Bills are which Her Majesty's Government have brought forward, but it is a Bill of a very important character, very slight in its dimensions, and not calculated to produce any controversy; therefore I shall give it a chance of obtaining the sanction of the House. I have now gone through two of the most important groups of projected legislation to which the right hon. Gentleman referred; but the colossal catalogue was not limited to these two groups. The next subject to which the right hon. Gentleman alluded for those proofs of the unsatisfactory state of public business which he adduced, refers to the department which is presided over by my noble Friend the President of the Board of Works. There are three Bills on the table of the House which have been placed there by my noble Friend. The first of these is the Intramural Interment Bill—a Bill which, I believe, has the concurrence of a great majority in this House, and which it is the public wish, as well as the wish of the majority of this House, should pass into law. I am not prepared, I confess, to renounce the hope, not only of passing that Bill, but of passing it quickly, and with but slight opposition. There is also another Bill, the Metropolitan Water Bill; but remember, that that Bill has already been referred to a Select Committee, and it comes down, therefore, to the House with the advantage of the criticism of that Select Committee, and the approbation of a tribunal to which the House always looks with great respect; and therefore I think I am warranted in believing that it can be passed without postponing the termination of the Session. There is another Bill laid upon the table of the House by my noble Friend (Lord J. Manners)-the Metropolis Buildings Bill; and, as there seems such a keen desire to resist legislation on the part of the right hon. Gentleman, from the fear that we may he overwhelmed with it, and, as it is necessary, in order to give hon. Members an opportunity of making any observations in reply, that I should conclude with some Motion, I am prepared to move, at the proper time, that the Order of the Day for the Second Reading of that Bill should be discharged. I have now gone through three of the great divisions which the right hon. Gentleman brought to our notice. All our measures of legal reform are fast arriving at that safe harbour to which I believe they are destined; all our Colonial Bills have also made very great progress since the Thursday when the attention of the country and of the House was called to the unprecedented position of Parliamentary business; and of the two Bills which are under the charge of my noble Friend the President of the Board of Works, one of them has been referred to a Select Committee, which, as I before said, will tend to make its progress through the House more rapid, and the other has received out of doors and in the House such a degree of favour that I cannot doubt it will in due time pass into a law. Sir, there were, however, other circumstances in the state of public business on which the right hon. Gentleman dilated in terms of impressive solemnity, and which seemed to produce a considerable effect at the moment upon the feelings of the House. The right hon. Gentleman called the attention of the House of Commons particularly, on Thursday, to the state of the Committee of Supply. With something of the art of the rhetorician, he reminded the House that hitherto the expeditious way in which the Committee of Supply had been carried on, the promptitude with which we had passed our Estimates, had been, as we are always too willing to acknowledge, the consequence of the continued forbearance of the House; but the right hon. Gentleman gave the House to understand that even now the remaining Estimates amounted to millions, in respect to which we were to pass through a different ordeal. On Thursday night he called the attention of the House and of the country to the important fact that there were still 200 Votes in supply which had not been passed, and that those 200 Votes were to be met with 42 recorded negatives of one hon. Member. That, Sir, was the dreadful prospect for the Government at the end of the week, and that was one of the evidences of the incapacity of Her Majesty's Ministry to conduct the business of the House of Commons. It will perhaps be some satisfaction to the right hon. Gentleman to know that, Monday having come, I, the great criminal, appearing to give that account which the "unprecedented" state of Parliamentary business was said to call for, can at least urge some plea of extenuating circumstances; since now, on Monday, instead of 200 Votes in Supply remaining to be passed, there are, I believe, only 19; and with regard to those 19 Votes, I cannot help thinking that, even with the determined spirit of the hon. Member for Youghal (Mr. C. Anstey) the hon. and learned Member may yet find other opportunities enough for the exercise of his indefatigable powers; and that, perhaps, when we go into Committee of Supply again with those 19 Votes we may experience even from him some little tender touch of remorse. There were some miscellaneous Bills also mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. There was the Navy Pay Bill. I have endeavoured to form some opinion whether that measure can be passed; but I cannot gather that there is any opposition to it, and when the statement is made with respect to it by the Secretary to the Admiralty, I indulge in the hope that that Bill too will pass. There is also the Patent-Law Amendment Bill; but I may remind the House that that Bill has already passed the House of Lords, and that we have referred it to a Select Committee; there, as I have before remarked was the case with Bills so referred, it will receive a revision which will enable it to command much more readily the general agreement of the House. I cannot think that I am yet called upon to say that these two laws, which I believe will be advantageous to the country, should be renounced. Now, Sir, there are some other Bills, and one rather large head, to which the right hon. Gentleman also referred. There are two Bills with regard to Ireland. There is, first, the Valuation of Land Bill; I hear from all sides that this is a good measure, Why, then, should we give it up? I cannot say that I am prepared to give it up, when we have had only one division upon this measure, and when the numbers, I think, were 80 to 4 in favour of the Bill; and, believing that this is a Bill which is very much to the advantage of the people of Ireland, I certainty think the House will concur in thinking it should pass. There is another Bill connected with Ireland—the White-boy Acts Consolidation Bill. I am anxious at this moment that no Bill should pass, that we should proceed with no Bill which is likely, I won't say to waste, but to occupy the time of the House, unless it is of urgent necessity; and, as I agree with those who think that a Bill for the purpose of consolidation can scarcely come under this head, I am prepared not to press it forward. Then there were the Continuance Bills, which is the last class of measures to which I shall refer. The Poor Law Board Act, which is a Continuance Bill, now stands for a third reading; and then there is the Encumbered Estates Act. That is a Bill which must be continued, and I cannot anticipate that any hon. Gentleman in this House can wish that that Bill should not pass. There remains another Bill, which relates to a matter to which the right hon. Gentleman said the late Government attached the greatest importance, and which must be renewed—I mean the Prevention of Crime and Outrage Act in Ireland. We have had from some hon. Gentlemen opposite some hints as to the opposition which is to be extended to the renewal of the Crime and Outrage Act. Sir, whatever opposition is offered to the Bill, so long as it respects Parliamentary usages, and is conducted in that courteous spirit which I believe will always distinguish this House, that opposition in a case of imminent necessity I must be prepared to meet. It is the opinion of Her Majesty's Government that the Act for Preventing Crime and Outrage in Ireland should be renewed; and inasmuch as that Act consists of only one clause, giving hon. Gentlemen opposite credit for as energetic patriotism as any body of men possess, even should they put in practice all the resources of their rhetoric, even if they should avail themselves of all the opportunities with which the constitutional forms of this House provide them, I cannot believe they will be able to defeat a measure so necessary to the peace, the tranquillity, and the prosperity of their country. With very great respect, therefore, for the opinions held by those hon. Gentlemen, we shall attempt to continue that Act; and I tell them I am prepared for their opposition, which however, I am sure will be conducted according to the spirit and practice of this House. I have now gone through the whole of the colossal catalogue of the right hon. Gentleman, and I ask the House fairly to decide, is it their opinion that the state of public business, that the state of business in the House of Commons, is so unsatisfactory as was alleged on Thursday night? I declare, Sir, that when I examine the Government measures that have not passed, with the most anxious desire to ask the House to support nothing which I do not conceive to be of the first necessity—with the most anxious desire that the labours of this Parliament should not be prolonged—I do not find myself justified, with the exception of the slight and most insignificant instance to which I have referred, in recommending the withdrawal of any of these Bills. They appear to me to be necessary, and they appear to me also to be in a most satisfactory state of progress, so that all of them may be passed consistently with that termination of the Session which we all of us anticipate. Sir, I claim no credit to the Government for this state of the public business, and I say that most unfeignedly. It is a state of the public business, in my opinion, satisfactory; but it is due, and due only, to the good sense and the good temper of the House of Commons. And, Sir, when I heard the highest authority dilate upon the present state of business, and say, with all the weight attaching to his name in the senate of his country, that if we did not take care we should bring representative government itself into disrepute, and that it would appear that we could not transact the business of the country, I say that I have drawn from the Session which is now closing a very different conclusion and a very opposite moral. I would rather adduce what has been done in this House, and the manner in which it has been done—I would rather adduce it as evidence in favour of representative government, in favour, at least, of the mode in which representative government is carried on in this country, than bring it forward as an argument which should lead us to believe that the reputation of representative government is in danger. Sir, I will not dilate upon the fact that we have been enabled already to pass through the House of Commons 37 Government measures, 20 of which have already become law; but when I recall to the House the circumstances of the Session, that a change of Government took place, and when I remind the House of the party feelings which under such circumstances naturally revive, of the great delay of business which from such circumstances must necessarily occur, the fact that I and my Colleagues only on the 15th of March were enabled to resume our seats in this House, I think it tells very much (as I said before) for the good sense and the good temper of the House of Commons that we have been permitted by their aid to carry nearly to a conclusion so many important measures, and yet not to have postponed that important appeal to the people on which we are all agreed. Sir, I remember some years ago, when I sat on the other side of the House, under the guidance and advice of that distinguished man Lord George Ben- tinck, and when I took a part in public affairs which I was not, but for the too great indulgence of my friends, scarcely justified to assume, it became my duty to sum up the results of the longest Session that I believe the House of Commons has ever yet experienced—a Session of more than ten continuous months, concluding in the month of September, 1848. There were at that time the same charges made as to the inefficiency of the House of Commons. At that time we were told that the accumulation of business was intolerable, and that it was proved in a manner which every one ought to view with alarm that a representative government could no longer deal with the affairs of a great community. Sir, it was my duty then, after a careful analysis of all the Motions and all the measures of that remarkable Session—it was my duty then to vindicate the conduct and character of the House of Commons. It was my duty also to endeavour to prove that which I gave my reasons for believing—that it was to the weakness of the Ministry, and not to the inefficieney of the House, that this lamentable state of affairs was owing. In the present instance, Sir, I do not think it necessary for me to ascribe the present state of public business either to the weakness of the Ministry, or to the inefficiency of the House of Commons, because I maintain that the condition of public business at such a period, and after a Session so broken up and disturbed, never was more satisfactory. I said that I claim no credit for the Ministry for this result; but I can say this most sincerely for them—that we have endeavoured by sedulous attention to the business which we had to discharge—to merit the generous support which we have received from the House of Commons, even from our opponents.

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