HC Deb 22 February 1853 vol 124 cc406-13

rose to bring forward a Motion of which he had given notice— For a Select Committee to consider the best means of providing for the execution of the office of Speaker in the event of Mr. Speaker's unavoidable absence by reason of illness or other cause. The Motion was one with regard to which he had at least this satisfaction, that it could not provoke any unkind or hostile feeling on the part of any one; but, on the contrary, he hoped it would receive the support of all parties. When he had suggested the subject in December last, he had received the sanction of the right hon. Gentleman who was then leader of the House, and he had then, also, communicated with the noble Lord the present leader of the House, who was not only so good as to promise to support the proposition, but to offer to serve on the Committee. Thus fortified he hoped the Motion would not be opposed on either side of the House. The subject was one involving so materially the first person in that House, that though he would not throw on any one the responsibility of the proposition he was about to make, he would add that he would not have undertaken to bring forward the Motion himself if he had been acting contrary to the mind or wishes of the Speaker himself. The wonder was not that such a Motion should be brought forward now, but that on the 22nd February, 1853, it should be left to any one individual to pro- pose such a measure to the House. Because the proposition Was not only now supported as he had stated, but it had the authority of Mr. Hatsell, who in his book on Parliamentary law and proceedings, published fifty years ago, said— It is remarkable that notwithstanding the Inconveniency which must attend the public business, in the necessary absence of the Speaker from personal indisposition or from any other cause, no measure has yet been adopted for the appointment of a Speaker pro tempore." He (Sir R. H. Inglis) might almost rest his Motion on that authority; but as no one else had called the attention of the House to the subject, it would not be respectful to the House to rest a proposition for an alteration in its mechanism on a mere statement of any authority, however final. He would refer to the practice of the House, and then to the possible inconvenience to its business which might occur from the act of no human being. In the old Journals of the House, the Speaker was called "the mouth of the House." That definition comprehended in the simplest form the greater part of the functions which he was called upon to perform; for the Speaker always addressed the Crown, he enumerated the last Bills of the Session, and asked for the privileges which were the defence of the House in its deliberative character. But independently of that, the Speaker was a necessary part of the organisation of the House, and its simplest and most elementary part. He would not allude to a visitation, which he trusted would for a long period be averted, which might incapacitate the Speaker for the service of the House; but he spoke of ordinary human contingencies which affected all men in their turn, and from which his station did not exempt the Speaker: an ordinary cold, for instance, which every Member might suffer from, and of which he might relieve himself by staying at home, would prevent the Speaker from discharging his duties. He was the mouth of the House; he had "put the question," only last night, three hundred times, and sometimes he had to put it five hundred times in the course of one evening; and, if his voice were rendered incapable, he would be inaudible, and his functions be ipso facto annihilated, and the public business suspended by what might happen to every one of the Members in the course of the Session. He remembered that his noble Friend Lord Mahon, talking of a very critical political period, about fifteen years ago, said that the fate, of the Government might depend on a single Members catching cold: so near did votes run-A cold, which might destroy a Government, might suspend the business of the House, as it would the personal functions of the Speaker; and it was strange that the House had not provided some remedy for such a probable evil. That House was the only deliberative assembly in the world which had not provided for the temporary absence of the honoured individual who presided over its deliberations. The House of Lords had not left itself in that state of uncertainty. They had the Lord Chancellor and two Deputy Speakers. When France had a representative Chamber it had four Vice-Presidents. In the United States the Speaker of the House of Representatives had a power which the Speaker of that House did not possess, and did not desire to have, namely, to call up pro re nata some member to fill the chair; and not only was this the case with such national assemblies, but even such bodies as the Bank of England, the East India Company, and the Royal Society, made provision for their business being carried on in the temporary and unavoidable absence of their Chairman or their President. In the British House of Commons, however, if the Speaker were absent, there must be a new election of a Speaker; and to avoid any such proceeding, while the Chair was filled as it now was, he (Sir R. H. Inglis) wished to provide, by the Motion which he was about to submit to the House. It had been said to him when he last incidentally brought the subject before the House, that he had proved too much, when his references showed how unfrequent the absence of Speakers of that House had been, and, consequently, how unfrequent they were likely to be, The Journals of the House began in 1547, and for fifty-nine years after there did not appear to have been any absence of a Speaker, from illness; but then the House would recollect how little strain there was at that time upon the mind or body of the Speaker. In 1606 the first instance of the absence of a Speaker from ill health occurred. On Monday, 16th March of that year, it was reported that "the Speaker, was very sick," although he had on the previous Saturday written a very weighty letter to the Judges of Assize desiring that the High Sheriff of Essex should attend the House, as the King required his services. The House accordingly ad- journed, and public business was suspended for a few days. From 1606 to 1656 there was no absence of the Speaker, from sickness, except on one occasion, when it was stated that, as Mr. Speaker Widrington entered the House. "they took notice of his weakness of body;" and, as he was unable to preside, they put the Lord Commissioner Whitelocke in the chair, under whose presidency business was carried on for a few days. He (Sir R. H. Inglis) was just asked by a Member near him how they came to do that; but he was not quoting this as an authority, because that was the time of the rebellion, when there was no King—at least when no King was reigning over here, for we always had a King—and none of the usual forms were observed. In the same year Mr. Challoner Chute, while Speaker, became ill, and Sir Lislebone Long was appointed Speaker during his illness, "and no longer." In 1659, Mr. Lenthall being in the chair as Speaker, became ill, and another Speaker was elected to supply his place temporarily. The next instance of absence was in 1672, when Sir Job Charlton, the Speaker, was ill. The marginal note in Grey's Debates stated "he was sick of his post." The next instance of absence from illness was that of a remarkable Speaker, the memorable Sir Edward Seymour, who took so prominent a part in the Revolution of 1688. He was taken ill, and the Comptroller of the Household brought a letter to the House, stating that Mr. Speaker was ill, and unable to use his pen, and a gentleman was nominated by the Secretary Coventry to take his place. The House resented this as an interference with their privileges, and Secretary Coventry, having withdrawn his attempt to nominate, the House elected Sir Robert Sawyer. But Sawyer, too, became sick, and retired, and there is reason to suppose that an arrangement had been made that Seymour should again be restored to his office; for it appeared by a reference to the Journals that, the Speaker being ill, notice was taken that Mr. Seymour was recovered, and it was proposed he should be re-elected; he was accordingly re-elected, and the House of Lords being then sitting, and the King on the throne, Seymour on the same day was presented, received the Royal approbation, and entered on his functions. That was in 1678. In 1694 Mr. Speaker Trevor wrote a short but meaning note to the Clerk at the table, to request the House to excuse him from attendance, as he "had a violent colic," and he was excused accordingly. That was an ordinary case, looking merely at the entry on the Journals; but it was a very remarkable one, when it was remembered that the day before Trevor had been accused by a Report of a Committee of most nefarious conduct in accepting 1,000 guineas to promote the irregular passage of a particular Bill through the House. From 1714 to 1733 Mr. Speaker Onslow was only four times incapacitated from attending, namely, in 1730, in 1737, 1738, and again in 1747. Sir John Cust was also absent in 1763 and 1764, and the House adjourned from day to day on these occasions, until he had recovered his health, and was able to resume the discharge of his functions; and it should be remembered that in these two cases the House was prevented from discharging its duties from the 18th to the 23rd of November, and from the 22nd to the 24th of February. It was easy to say that it mattered little whether the House sat a week more or less in any particular Session, or in any particular week or not. Hut he must remind the House that cases had occurred in our own time, and even in the last week, in which the public service required the continuous presence of the Speaker in the chair. It was only last Wednesday that a Bill passed through all its stages in one day, and it was considered vitally important to the public service that it should. He (Sir R. H. Inglis) had a return of the number of Bills which passed through all their stages in one day during the first twenty years of the present century. Those Bills—some, at all events—were of great commercial or political importance; and was it not important that the House should be able to sit on such occasions? Take again, the Transfer of Aids Bill. He saw several Gentlemen who had been Chancellors of the Exchequer present, and he would ask them whether, in such a case, delay in passing such a measure might not seriously affect the public interests? During the period from 1801 to 1850, twelve Bills, which the Government must of course have considered to be important, were passed through all their stages in one day; amongst them being two suspensions of the Habeas Corpus Act. It might be said that such hurry was not required; but it was sometimes—take, for instance, the Bank Suspension Act in 1819—and for such cases provision should be made. He would put it to the House whether, if any such emer- gency arose, it would not be important to make provision, in order that the absolute necessity of the personal presence of the Speaker might be avoided. Then there was another Bill, the Bill for correcting errors in the Valuation of Lands (Ireland) Bill, which was passed through all its stages in one day. He was not anticipating a calamity which would permanently deprive the House of the services of the Speaker, but only such ordinary occurrences as might temporarily cause his absence; and he did urge the House not to let the opportunity pass without at least an inquiry as to what might be done on the subject. He had said that there was no other deliberative assembly which was unprovided in this respect; but when even in such bodies as the Bank, the East India Company, the Royal Society, &c, provision was made for the possible absence of their Presidents—should it be said that the House of Commons relied on such a combination of circumstances as were now necessary to prevent the interruption of their deliberations? He had a list of the number of Members who had been absent from the House through illness in the last ten years. What right had they to assume that the Speaker would never suffer in the same way? He had taken the years when there were no Election Committees, and nothing to cause any unwillingness to attend the public service for the number of Members absent through illness. Besides, the Speaker was not made of cast iron; he had a wife, children, a father and mother, and domestic affections, as well as other people. And yet there were only two or three instances, so far as he could recollect, in which the Speaker had been absent, from any such cause. The Speaker, Cornwall, from the illness of a near relation in 1783; the Speaker, Addington, in 1790, from the death of his father; the Speaker, Manners Sutton, from the like cause in 1828. On another occasion Mr. Speaker Grenville was absent, in the service of the country. If they had such an officer as he suggested, those detriments to the business of the House would not have arisen. He did not think that it was necessary, in asking for a Committee of inquiry, that he should state particularly the course he proposed to adopt; but if they admitted the evil of the present arrangement—and he did not see how it was possible to deny it—they must provide a remedy against its recurrence, and they must be prepared to proceed by Act of Parliament. Most of them would remember the difficulties that had arisen during the last ten years from doubts respecting the accuracy of the Speaker's warrant. It was absolutely necessary that the Speaker's warrant should be such as would defy all legal objection; but it was still more important that the officer who subscribed the warrant should himself be duly appointed. It was not sufficient that the House should appoint some one of its Members in the Speaker's absence to take his place. The precedents showed that that course had been recommended in former times, but had been resisted by great constitutional lawyers, because the recognition of the Speaker by the Sovereign on the Throne was a necessary preliminary to his taking part in any of the business of the House. If that were the constitutional doctrine, he contended that no Resolution of the House, no Address from the House to the Crown, with an answer from the Crown in favour of such Address, would reconcile any adverse party to a proceeding emanating from an authority which he was advised to dispute. The same authority which enabled the Speaker to sit in the chair with so much dignity and usefulness, must be employed with reference to the individual who was to succeed him; and if the office should remain unfilled, even for one day, an occurrence might arise which would cause serious inconvenience, and he might even say degradation, to the authority of the House. He hoped the necessity he had pointed out might never arise, and that the Speaker might long continue to fill his present situation as he had filled it hitherto; but when they looked at the uncertainty of life and of health, and not only the life and health of one individual, but of those who were dear to him as himself, there might arise occasions when he could not attend, and the House would see the necessity of adopting such a course as he now recommended. The hon. Baronet concluded by reading the Motion.


thought the hon. Gentleman had himself shown why this Motion should not be agreed to. He had shown that in fifty or sixty years no occasion had arisen, or that, when it had arisen, the remedy the House had applied was sufficient, and that no difficulty had been experienced. He submitted, then, that there was no necessity for inquiry. If the necessity arose, the Chairman of Ways and Means could discharge the duty. When a similar proposition to that now brought forward was made in the Committee upstairs, an hon. Member observed that if there was no deputy he would never be wanted, but if there was a deputy it would be found that the Chair would be more frequently filled by him than by the Speaker. It might be urged that public companies had vice-chairmen; but no public companies were ever blessed with such healthy officers as the Speakers of the House of Commons had been. As long as the right hon. Gentleman sat in the chair, no occasion, he trusted, would occur for absenting himself. However, they were all mortal, and it was quite possible that some cause for temporary absence might occur; but he hoped the good sense of the House, in such an event, would enable them to find a substitute. He thought they should continue in the course they had hitherto adopted, without making any new appointment.

Motion agreed to.