HC Deb 01 February 1854 vol 130 cc195-204

MR. BROTHERTON moved, "That if any new business be brought on after twelve o'clock at night, and a Member rises to order, and objects to the House proceeding with the debate, a division shall, without further discussion, be immediately taken on the question, 'That the debate be now adjourned,' unless the Mover of the original Motion agrees to its being postponed." He admitted that the proposal was not the very best that could have been made, but, under the circumstances, it was the best he had any chance of carrying. He should have preferred such a Resolution as that which he submitted, unfortunately without success, last Session—a Resolution rendering it obligatory on the House not to sit later than twelve o'clock at night; but as that Motion had not found favour with the House, he thought that the next best thing would be to propose such a Motion as he had now the honour to submit. He was sure that it would have a beneficial operation. Hon. Members must agree with him in the opinion that the practice of late sitting, so far from being discontinued, or even mitigated, seemed to be getting worse and worse. He had referred to the return of the number of hours beyond midnight which the House had sat during the last five years, and he found that they had sat, in 1849, 76 hours after midnight; in 1850, 108 hours; in 1851, 86 hours; in 1852, 61 hours; in 1853, 133 hours; and it should be borne in mind that, on several occasions, they had sat three or four hours after midnight. It was scarcely necessary to cite the practice of foreign Legislatures. Every Legislature in Europe and America had the good sense to do its business by daylight, and it did appear to him monstrous that the British House of Commons should be the only Legislature in the world which conducted its business at such very late and unseasonable hours. He knew there was a feeling out of doors regretting this, and a feeling of just surprise that so few Members in that House should support the Motions which he continually brought forward, in the hope of rectifying the evil. He wished, however, to explain what was not generally understood. It was generally imagined that he could interfere at any moment to put an end to any Motion which might be introduced after twelve o'clock at night. People out of doors were led to suppose that this was possible, from what used to take place during the time of the predecessor of the present Speaker. It was the predecessor of the present Speaker who gave him (Mr. Brotherton) importance, because he could always catch his eye after twelve o'clock, and thus he was enabled to accomplish what he regarded as a great improvement in their mode of transacting business. But he enjoyed no such facilities at present. It was past his strength to endure the late hours, and to remain in the House to the close of its proceedings, as he had been once in the habit of doing. It was but natural to expect that whoever occupied the Chair would be disposed to incline towards the Ministers, who did not like to be interrupted in their proceedings, and were anxious to get through the business. But he had a confident anticipation that if the House would adopt the Motion he had now the honour to submit, it would be found to work most beneficially. It had been said that there was no Legislature in the world which had so much business to do as the House of Commons. He admitted it, and was convinced that the adoption of the present Resolution would have the effect of facilitating their proceedings. His object was not to retard the progress of public business, but to save the time wasted in useless debates on adjournments after midnight, and to expedite business. In the efficient working of the system on Wednesdays they had a powerful argument in favour of the step which he now recommended. It was assuredly time that something should be done to put an end to an evil which was becoming more serious each succeeding Session. A friend of his during the whole of last Session, wishing to discharge his duty conscientiously, attended in that House every day, from the time the Speaker took the chair till the rising of the House; but his health was so shattered at the close of the Session, that his medical adviser had admonished him that he must discontinue the practice. He was anxious to do his duty to his constituency, but he found it impossible, except at the risk of his life, to remain in the House night after night, till, perhaps, three or four o'clock in the morning. The Motion which he (Mr. Brotherton) now submitted, had propriety and common sense to recommend it. Let the House try it for one Session, at all events, and if they found it did not work well, nothing could be easier than to recur to the old system. He had the strongest conviction that it would be found to operate most beneficially.


seconded the Motion. His hon. Friend had repeatedly brought this subject before the House, and year after year the evils which he pointed out had gone on increasing. It was now time that a stop should be put to them. Session after Session they found Bills brought in to amend former Bills which passed without due consideration at a late period of the night in former Sessions, and still other Bills to amend these amended Bills. The consequence was, that the statute books presented a mass of confusion which no a wyer could understand, and there was scarcely a case brought before the Judges in which they did not differ in opinion. A number of Bills—some of them of great importance—were brought in at a late period of the Session, and several of them passed after two o'clock, when forty Members, and often not forty Members, were present. It was most discreditable to the House to allow business to be conducted in this manner. If the private business of the country was so conducted, universal bankruptcy would be the certain consequence. A great deal of time might be economised by the introduction of a proper system. A great loss of time was caused by the intro- duction of Bills which were never intended to be carried, and a vast loss of the public time was the consequence. There was a certain period of the Session when what was jocularly called "the slaughter of the innocents" took place; but it would be far better if no Bills were introduced which there was not a real intention of passing. He recollected the time when the interposition of his hon. Friend was almost effectual; but things had got worse, and it would require all the youthful energy of his hon. Friend to carry his point now. No Legisture in the world passed measures at so late a period of the night as they did. He recollected the passing of an important Bill by the Congress of the United States, in which a great defect was soon detected, and it was attributed to the circumstance that the Bill was passed at twelve o'clock at night. He hoped the House would agree to the moderate proposition of his hon. Friend.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That if any new business be brought on after 12 o'clock at night, and a Member rises to order, and objects to the House proceeding with the Debate, a division shall, without further discussion, be immediately taken on the Question, 'That the Debate be now adjourned,' unless the Mover of the original Motion agrees to its being postponed.


said, that the hon. Member for Salford (Mr. Brotherton) had introduced the Motion as a question of hours, but it seemed to him to involve a question of months. He could not help availing himself of this opportunity of again making a suggestion he had submitted to the noble Lord at the end of last Session, namely, whether it would not be advisable to revive the Committee which sat some few years ago to consider the forms and proceedings of the House. There was, no doubt, a good deal of force in what the hon. Member for Salford said about the hours at which the House was forced to transact business; but when it was constantly seen that when the month of June arrived, there were not less than thirty or forty orders waiting for decision, he thought the House would agree with him that it was impossible to dispose of those orders unless they were allowed to sit up occasionally to a later hour than the hon. Member desired. The hon. Member for Lambeth (Mr. Williams) had referred to that annual abandonment of Bills known by the name of the "massacre of the innocents," but he had more to complain of than that abandonment. He complained of the indecent haste with which measures of very great importance were in the month of August last hurried through an exhausted House, when the Members were exhausted, not only by their long attention to their duties, but by the weight also of the duties—when many hon. Members had undergone so much physical exertion as to have been obliged to retire from town. Now, when they were at the beginning of the Session, and only a few days, if at all, earlier than usual, he would suggest whether the House should not systematically meet at an earlier period of the month of January. By that method at least three weeks of valuable time would be be gained, the whole benefit of which, he thought, would be reaped at the end of the Session. He by no means blamed the caution of the noble Lord in not departing unnecessarily from forms which had so long been beneficially adhered to; but it was a question whether the public business had not outgrown the times at which the House sat; and so, instead of adopting the proposal of the hon. Member, he thought it would be better to appoint a Committee to revise the whole forms of the House.


felt the inconvenience to which the House was subjected, from the necessity imposed upon them of sitting to very late hours in order to carry on the business of the country. It was not, however, at all just to say that Government wished to carry on their business at a late hour. The fact was, that when business was brought on by the Government, and agreed to by a large majority of the House, it must be supposed that it was business which it was important to settle. Last year important measures connected with our financial arrangements, and with the government of India, were brought forward; and the House having decided in favour of those measures, it was very desirable that they should be proceeded with and passed. It would, doubtless, be more convenient to the Government if they were able to proceed with their business at a quarter past four o'clock, and to get it done by twelve o'clock. But they were prevented from doing this by the delays caused by the various questions and Motions which the forms of the House allowed hon. Members to interpose, and which frequently hindered the Government business from coming on until a late hour of the evening. He thought it was desirable that they should not decide on the single proposition of his hon. Friend, but that they should have before them such a plan as would secure what every one deemed desirable—that measures and Bills of great importance should meet with a fair consideration at a time when every one could attend. His hon. Friend proposed that if any new business—by which, he supposed, was meant any Order of the Day—was brought on after twelve o'clock at night, any Member might get up and have a division. But he did not propose that that division should be final, if it was in favour of the Motion being proceeded with; and thus, if a majority decided in favour of going on, there was nothing to prevent some Member or other having another division. So that, if the Motion were adopted, they might have an hour or an hour and a half in the beginning of the evening occupied with questions, the early part of the night taken up with long speeches upon some topic which excited great interest, and then, after that debate was over, they might have the discussion of every Order of the Day obstructed by a Member or Members who might only be supported by a minority of 50 against a majority of 250. He could not but think that the adoption of the Motion of his hon. Friend, taken by itself, would not lead to the attainment of the end he had in view. At the same time he felt strongly the objections which had been urged by the right hon. Gentleman who had just spoken (Sir J. Pakington), against the present mode of carrying on the business of the House. This had arisen from the multifarious subjects which were brought under the notice of the House, the number of which was every year increasing. That House was not like the Congress of the United States of America, which had in connexion with it a great many State Legislatures, doing, perhaps, two thirds or three-fourths of the business which was brought before that House. It must be recollected that they had to deal, not only with the public business of this vast Empire, but also with the private business of each separate town. He thought it would be very desirable to have a Committee to consider the method of transacting business; and he thought it would be requisite to determine whether they would have separate Committees on public and on private business, or whether it would not be better to have a single Committee to deal with the whole subject. He believed that the deliberations of such a Committee would be attended with great advantage, both in the transaction of public and of private business, Under the present system there was such an accumulation of business towards the end of the Session, that they were compelled either to sit to two or three o'clock in the morning to dispose of it, or neglect measures of great public importance. Nor could it be said that there was no demand for legislation. The Government had in the Queen's Speech mentioned various subjects on which they proposed to legislate during the present Session, but, nevertheless, complaints had been made that others were not included. Now, certainly it did not seem reasonable to say that the House must not sit late at night, and, on the other hand, to accuse the Government of not bringing in sufficient measures, although those that they did introduce were sufficient to occupy their time. He hoped that the hon. Member would not persist in his Motion. But if either he or the right hon. Gentleman (Sir J. Pakington), after consulting with the Members of the Government, would propose the appointment of a Committee in terms to which they could assent, he (Lord John Russell) would most readily agree to it, and if he were one of its Members, would give his best attention to the subject.


said, that nothing was so important as to begin well, and he was glad to see that they had begun well this Session. If they began now with the determination that July should close the Session, he felt satisfied that the business of the Session might be dealt with by that time. Allusion had been made to the Committee which sat three years ago, before which, M. Thiers had been examined as to the system in France, and other gentlemen examined as to the practice of the United States. One or two of the suggestions of that Committee had been adopted, but the rest of them had not been attended to. He proposed in that Committee, with a view to the saving of time, that no Member should be allowed to speak more than an hour except the mover, but he could only get one out of the seventeen Members of the Committee to second him. It was not because there were many subjects of consideration that time was lost, but because they were made party questions—because the debates were adjourned from day to day, and because the "great guns" of the House, as they were called, lay by to attack each other. He believed that the best decisions of the House were those which were arrived at at an early period of the evening. He thought it would save a great deal of time if every debate was concluded in one night. He felt the effect of sitting up after 12 o'clock; he was not so well able to do that as he used to be, but still if the debate was to be concluded in one night he would remain up till it was finished. He did not think the appointment of a Committee at all necessary.


thought that a Committee was desirable to enable them to judge which was the best mode of proceeding they could adopt. But in the meantime he would suggest, as a means of saving much time, first, that more business should originate in the House of Lords than was now the case. If, with the exception of those measures of taxation and finance which it was the peculiar province of the House of Commons to originate, the other branch of the Legislature proceeded at an early period of the Session to the consideration of other measures, those measures would come down to the House of Commons more ripe for discussion, whilst both Houses would be employed at the same time in forwarding the public business. The second suggestion was, that the consideration of the details and principles of Bills should be kept more distinct than was at present the case. He would suggest that the first two hours, from five to seven o'clock, should be devoted to the former class of business, and that the debates on the principles of Bills should follow. The hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Hume) said that the "great guns" kept back. He supposed the hon. Gentleman meant by the great guns the leaders of Government and the Opposition. He (Mr. Walpole), however, thought it a very convenient course that they should be allowed to review at the close the facts and arguments adduced in the course of the debate, so that other Members might be the better able to form an opinion on the subject under discussion.


could not concur in the view taken by the hon. Member for Montrose of the Committee which sat on the forms of the House a few years ago, for he thought it had occasioned a great improvement in their business. It was formerly the practice to adjourn debates to an excessive extent one upon another; and the public business had arrived at such a pitch that there were no less than five important subjects all under the consideration of the House at the same time, and all in process of adjourned debates. This was not only prejudicial to the business of the House, but intolerable to the Members; and the result of the deliberations of that Committee was, that the practice of constantly adjourning debates had been very materially diminished, and the mixing of adjourned debates entirely put an end to. The late Sir Robert Peel had recommended the Committee not to apply to the House any restrictive measures, but rather trust to the good feeling and good taste of the Members to assist in the conduct of public business; and that was the reason why any exact limitation of time to which a Member might speak was not approved of by them. He argued, from the good that had been effected by that Committee, that the best results would follow the appointment of another.


said, that a great deal of the time of the House was unnecessarily wasted. Last Session the important subject of the Government of India was postponed till seven o'clock by a discussion whether a hackney-coach driver had overcharged his "fare." It was impossible for the human frame to stand a continuance of labour from four o'clock in the evening to three or four in the morning. The weight of business was thrown on the last period of the Session. It was said that the formal Bills only were then introduced, but many of them were of a very important character. No Bill should be read a second time till it was printed and its contents known. He hoped his hon. Friend would divide the House, and ascertain whether the Members of the House were to work harder than any other class of Her Majesty's subjects.


said, the Motion before the House would be an imperfect and insufficient remedy of the evil complained of. He made a suggestion last Session which he thought would be an improvement on the Motion of the hon.Gentleman—namely, that no Irish business should be brought on after twelve o'clock. Certainly a great deal of Irish business was brought on after twelve o'clock. He did not know whether this was because the Irish Members were considered to be more sober-minded at that hour—but at all events the result was great delay and waste of time. It was quite true that Bills were brought in one Session to remedy the defects of measures passed the Session before; but in his opinion that evil would never be remedied till they had a Minister of Justice in the country. If those Bills which were matured were printed and laid on the table at an early period of the Session, it would save much time.


, in reply, said, that the object of his Motion was to facilitate, and not to retard, public business. He did not propose to interfere with the progress of any business that had been commenced before twelve o'clock, but only to give an opportunity of preventing any fresh business being taken. There would be no loss but rather a saving of time by adopting his Motion. At present, repeated Motions of adjournment, with discussions upon each, might be made, and thus much valuable time was lost. But if his Motion was carried, the question would be immediately put upon any Member objecting to the House proceeding, and if the decision were against him, and in favour of proceeding, he would immediately bow to the decision of the House, and business would be resumed with a loss of not more than ten minutes. He might mention that he had carried this very proposition in the Committee to which reference had been made, by a majority of one.

The House divided:—Ayes 54; Noes 84: Majority 30.

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