HC Deb 05 February 1856 vol 140 cc245-53

said, he rose to bring forward the Resolution of which he had given notice, relative to the late sittings in that House— That, on those days on which the House shall sit in the evening, the debate on any business under discussion at Twelve o'clock (midnight) shall stand adjourned to the next day on which the House shall sit, after which no opposed business shall be proceeded with; and that, whenever the House shall be in Committee on any evening at midnight, the Chairman do report progress, and Mr. Speaker do resume the Chair. Many words were not required to recommend his proposition to the favour of hon. Members, though, reasonable as he deemed it to be, it was at one time not his intention to obtrude the subject again on the attention of the House; but he had been assured that the long sittings of last Session made many converts, and that there was now a strong feeling in favour of his Motion, He was not surprised at that change of opinion, because, whenever the subject was spoken of out of doors, there was always an expression of astonishment that the late sittings of the House should have continued so long. He might state as a fact, that during two months of last Session the House sat on an average two hours after midnight; for the whole Session the average was one hour. Most certainly that must have been very injurious to the health of Members. He had himself seen many of them exceedingly wearied, and he believed that those who might vote against him to-night would be very glad if his Motion should be carried. During the recess they had lost five Members by death; how many had died during the whole year he could not tell; but he thought that if they went on in the present way, the insurance companies would be justified in demanding a larger premium from Members of the House of Commons, on account of the excessive mortality among them in comparison with other persons. No argument could be adduced in favour of late sittings. In no other Legislature in Europe or America did they follow such a preposterous system. Other legislative assemblies had the good sense to do their business by daylight, and the only argument he ever heard against the adoption of the same system in the House of Commons was, that the House having more important measures to discuss than any other Legislature in the world, it was impossible they could curtail their debates, and that it was therefore absolutely necessary to sit occasionally after midnight. He held the contrary opinion, and believed that, if they would only economise their time in a rational way, they would have no difficulty in transacting all the business of an evening before twelve o'clock, Many improvements had recently been made in the mode of conducting private business, and the experience of the last two evenings showed how much time might be saved by the adoption of a few simple regulations. Half an hour had been saved each night by the mode of introducing Bills; less time was now consumed in the presentation of public petitions; the ceremony of communicating with the other House had been shortened, and many other changes which had been made were calculated to economise the time of the House. He thought, therefore, that if in addition to what had already been done, a few simple rules were adopted, there would be no necessity for their continuing such late sittings. If his Motion were carried, what he would propose was, that Committees should meet at eleven o'clock and sit till three, at which hour the business of the House should commence, thus allowing nine hours for discussion before midnight. He hoped the House would try his plan for one Session at least. Some independent Members might say that they would have no opportunity of discussing their Bills, unless they were permitted to bring them in after twelve o'clock. He believed, on the other hand, that his proposal would tend rather to facilitate than to retard the business of the House, for, if adopted, he certainly did hope that it would induce hon. Members to shorten their speeches. If, when a Member had spoken the sentiments of others, those others would refrain from repeating over and over again what had already been said, much valuable time would be saved. In America, as he understood, no Member was allowed to speak longer than an hour; and, although he did not propose to introduce the same restriction here, he did entertain the hope that hon. Members would have the good sense not to trespass upon the attention of the House at too great length. He believed that if his proposition were adopted, it would have a good effect on the measures of the House, and would give general satisfaction to the country.


said, he seconded the Motion with great pleasure, believing that it would improve the character of the House and do good to the public. Arguments in its favour were to be found in every quarter of the House. If he turned to the Chair, he must say that it was too great a demand upon the health and strength of Mr. Speaker, whose interests they were bound to consider, to require him to sit up till three or four o'clock in the morning. There could be no doubt that, if permitted to retire somewhat earlier, their Chairman would be able to serve the public more efficiently than he could do under the present system. If he turned to the Treasury bench, he would ask whether it was just to Her Majesty's Ministers, who were worked all day at their public offices, to impose upon them additional duties at night? No wonder Ministers were prematurely growing old—no wonder they transmitted hereditary gout to their posterity. Surely, if they were spared the excessive nocturnal legislation of which he complained, they would be more able to attend to their important duties at the public offices. At present, it was impossible for them to be at their offices before twelve or one o'clock in the day. They certainly managed these things better abroad. It was well known that when M. Guizot was First Minister of France he was up at six o'clock every morning. If he turned to hon. Members themselves, he would ask whether their habits were not rendered irregular by late sittings, and whether they did not think that they would discharge their duty to their constituents more efficiently under the system now proposed by his hon. Friend the Member for Salford, than under that which had unhappily existed for so long a period? He believed they would serve the public much better if they were less prodigal of their health and strength. The truth was that the House at certain times after midnight was a scene, not of activity, but of repose. Upon those occasions one could never see a number of Members extended on the benches without parodying the well-known lines of Cowper— Sweet sleep enjoys the Chairman in the chair, Sweet the tired Members on the bench behind, And sweet the clerks below. He had himself counted no fewer than twenty-six Members asleep at one time, including the First Minister of the Crown, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and, descending to the recesses of the Woods and Forests, the head of that department also. He could not think that in continuing such a system they were doing their duty as Members of Parliament. But they were also setting a bad example to society, for there could be no doubt that the late hours now in fashion owed their origin to the old war habits of Pitt and Fox, continued down to the present day. As to the Motion before the House, he admitted that it was something too trenchant, as the French phrased it, but in dealing with a sore it was as well to make a bold cut, and therefore, his hon. Friend proposed a limit. He gave his support to the Motion of his hon. Friend from a conviction that the House would never do better until it attempted to do less.

Motion made, and Question put— That, on those days on which the House shall sit in the Evening, the Debate on any business under discussion at Twelve o'clock (midnight) shall stand adjourned to the next day on which, the House shall sit; after which no opposed business shall be proceeded with: And that, whenever the House shall be in Committee on any Evening at midnight, the Chairman do report progress, and Mr. Speaker do resume the Chair.


Sir, I should be the first person to do ample justice to the benevolent intentions of my hon. Friends who have proposed and seconded this Motion. To exempt Ministers from the effects of old age—to guard them against the gout—these are undoubtedly very great temptations held out to us to accede to the proposition of my hon. Friends. But, nevertheless, I feel it would not be consistent with our duty as servants of the Crown, charged with the conduct of the business of this country, to agree to their proposal. My hon. Friend (Mr. Brotherton) compares the business of this House with that transacted by the Congress of the United States, and other legislative assemblies; but that comparison really cannot hold good for a moment. Take the Congress of the United States. Can any man for an instant compare the business transacted by that Assembly with the business which devolves upon the Parliament of Great Britain? Why we know that all the details of legislation for the separate States of the Union are transacted by the Congresses of those separate States, and, therefore, the business of the general federal Congress is extremely limited as compared with the business of this House. My hon. Friend proposes to limit the time of sitting, and he founds his proposition on the maxim that abuse leads to restriction. But if that maxim be true, it is equally true that restriction leads to abuse. My hon. Friend also proposes to make a new law to limit our debates, and, undoubtedly, the limit which in the course of his speech he suggested is one that would be very desirable, but still it is one which must depend upon the discretion of individual Members in using their privilege of addressing the House. His suggestion is, that only a limited number of Gentlemen should speak on each side, and that no one should repeat arguments which had been used before, and that Gentlemen should not speak for more than a certain number of minutes. Undoubtedly, if we could arrive at a common agreement upon a point of this kind our debates would be very much shortened, but whether the public interests would be better served thereby I very much doubt. Although loquacity may sometimes be exuberant, yet I am not prepared to concur with my hon. Friend in saying that no Member of this House shall repeat arguments which have already been used, because, if the arguments be good, I think the oftener they are repeated the more likelier they are to accomplish their purpose. I have heard that Mr. Fox, a pretty good judge of Parliamentary tactics, used to say the best debate was that in which ten or twelve men on one side would get up one after the other and repeat the same arguments over and over again in almost the same words, until the mind of the House was saturated with them, and brought to that conviction which it is the object of all debates to produce. My hon. Friend says we ought to finish our debates by a certain hour each night, and that such a Resolution would produce a good effect. Well, look at Wednesdays. On Wednesdays there is an hour at which necessarily the House adjourns. Let any Member carry back his recollection to some things which happened last Session upon Wednesdays. There were certain questions which excited great interest, but which were totally thrown over by the power which Members of the House had of continuing the debate every day until the fatal moment arrived when the House adjourned as a matter of course. Upon one of those questions, which excited very great interest on both sides of the House, I have heard that one hon. Gentleman, upon being asked when he meant to speak in opposition to the measure under debate, replied, "Oh, I have a speech of six hours to deliver, but my turn will not come for six weeks." That hon. Member felt perfectly certain that by exerting his privilege, and probably repeating several times over the arguments which others had previously used, he would succeed in defeating the measure which he intended to resist. And so it would be always if we laid down a rule that at a given hour of the night, whatever be the state of business, the House should adjourn. Depend upon it, instead of shortening the business we should very much lengthen the time winch the disposal of business would occupy. Then my hon. Friend proposes to go a, step further, and says that not only should we limit the number of hours over which our debates should extend, but that we should limit the number of weeks during which the House should sit. No doubt, it would be very convenient personally to Members to be relieved from their duties in this House at a fixed period, to know that at a certain time, whether the business of the House was completed or not, the Session would terminate, and they would all be at liberty to retire into the country; but I think those are not the terms upon which our constituents send us here. We are sent here to do the business of the country, and that ought to be done, let it cost us any number of hours or any number of months of Session. The hon. Member who seconded the Motion says we should reform the habits of the country—that in other countries people keep much earlier hours than we do in England, and that we are spoiling society by the late hours we keep. Why, Sir, my hon. Friend should remember that it is not our habits, it is the habits of the country which must regulate, to a certain degree, the habits of Parliament. My hon. Friend says, official business does not commence early enough in England. I remember once hearing that a noble Lord was desirous of having an audience of the Duke of Wellington, then Commander in Chief, and the Duke, who we all know was an early riser, appointed seven o'clock in the morning for the interview, at the Horse Guards. A Friend of the noble Lord asked him, "How on earth will you manage to be with the Duke at seven o'clock?" "Oh!" replied the noble Lord, "nothing can be easier; I shall do it the last thing before going to bed." Depend upon it you cannot, by any rules of this House, alter the habits of men. Towards the close of the Session we sit day and night, and I assure you that is a proceeding extremely inconvenient to the departmental portions of the public service, as hon. Gentlemen who have official duties to discharge find it extremely difficult to attend the House at the hours of office business. I must further say, giving full credit to my hon. Friends for the motives which have induced them to bring forward this Motion, and being, with them, desirous by all possible means to shorten any forms which may oppose unnecessary obstacles to the transaction of business, I cannot think the Motion now proposed is one calculated to accomplish any good result to the public service. No doubt there are many forms which we have altered, and thereby accelerated the despatch of public business, and if there be still any unnecessary forms let us get rid of them. Accelerate as much as possible the transaction of business, but I would warn the House against any attempt to impose fetters upon the conduct of Members, because I am quite sure such a course would tend to the injury of the public service. My hon. Friend (Mr. Ewart) says, that after midnight this House exhibits a scene of perfect repose, and he pictured a number of Gentlemen in recumbent attitudes enjoying a refreshing slumber after the fatigues of the day. I must say my recollection does not concur with his, for, if in the course of a Session there are sometimes scenes of something like confusion—of violent irritation—of acrimonious debate—of something that calls for the interposition of the Speaker—it always happens about the small hours of the morning. If ever there happens any irregularity, or there be more animation than usual, it is always in those hours of repose my hon. Friend speaks of—after twelve o'clock at night. I have been often a witness to scenes of that description, and now and then I have endeavoured to soothe the irritation of the moment, but I have observed that these scenes occur always at that period of the night. Thus, my hon. Friend is mistaken in supposing that the physical strength or the animal spirits of Members are less vigorous after twelve o'clock than before. If that be the test by which my hon. Friend judges of the legislative capacity of this House after midnight, I cannot think he has established his case, and therefore I feel it my duty to oppose his Motion, and hope the House will agree with me in thinking it unadvisable to cramp the freedom of its debates.

MR. W. WILLIAMS rose amid cries of "Divide, divide!;" and said, he thought it was rather too important a question to dispose of so hastily. The speech of the noble Lord, however facetious, had failed to convince him that the Motion ought not to be supported. They had every Session a host of Bills brought in by the Government, which consumed a vast deal of their time unnecessarily, for the Government had no bonâ fide intention of carrying them. Towards the close of the Session those Bills underwent the operation of what was called "the murder of the innocents." During the last Session the House had sat for 110 hours after midnight. There was also a vast deal of time consumed in discussing a number of idle Motions on going into Committee of Supply. It was generally long after midnight when the greatest money Votes were taken—a time when it was impossible to consider them with proper attention. When the noble Lord the Member for London (Lord John Russell) was at the head of the Government, there was no disposition shown to force on the Supplies after midnight; but in the two last Sessions these Votes were persevered in. He would suggest to the noble Lord the giving up one day for the consideration of all the Motions before going into Supply, in order that they might proceed with the Votes on a special evening at five o'clock.


said, he thought the speech of the noble Lord calculated to mislead both the House and the country. When the noble Lord argued against the Motion by referring to the example of the Wednesday's proceedings, he (Mr. Bass) was prepared to contend that the House had always been able to get through more business, and in a shorter space of time, during the morning sitting than at any other time. The business done after midnight was generally done in a short, slovenly manner, and very often measures were passed which would not be permitted at a time when they could be fairly discussed.

The House divided:—Ayes 50; Noes 111: Majority 61.