HC Deb 22 July 1856 vol 143 cc1226-34

said, he rose pursuant to notice, to move— That, except upon the introduction of a measure to the House, no Member do speak for more than half an hour at one time upon the same question; nor upon any occasion for more than one hour. It might, perhaps, be objected, that the adoption of his Motion would limit the privileges of Members; but although he was but a young Member of that House he had had considerable experience of the proceedings of public bodies, and he had never seen so much time wasted by them as was wasted in the proceedings of that House. The universal complaint of private Members was, that the Government usurped all the available time of the House and that they had no opportunity of bringing forward independent measures. There were frequently from twenty to thirty Orders of the Day upon the paper; the discussion of only one of them often occupied the whole evening until midnight; the other Orders were consequently hurried over or put off; and then, at the end of the Session, came the usual massacre of the innocents. He thought it was a reproach to the House that year after year a large number of measures should be submitted to their consideration which it was eventually found impossible to carry into law. He knew that the length at which some hon. Gentlemen were in the habit of addressing the House was not the only cause of this delay in legislation. The Motions which were frequently made on the question of the adjournment of the House on Friday evenings, particularly, were productive of considerable delay. Those who caused such delays were well known, but of course it would be invidious to mention them. He had prepared a statement, showing the time occupied by different Members in speaking, which he would beg to read to the House. It was true that some hon. Gentlemen might be listened to for an hour at a time with great pleasure, but he was so much of a patriot that he was quite willing to sacrifice that gratification. Now, one remedy for the evil was condensation. Some twenty years ago he was the chairman of a metropolitan railway company, and in that capacity it was frequently his duty to explain to the shareholders the views and the policy of the Directors, He unfortunately got into the habit of making long speeches, and hints were given to him by the shareholders and the reporters that his speeches should be very much shortened. He accustomed himself in consequence to the habit of condensation, and he was not quite sure that in endeavouring to avoid Scylla he had not fallen into Charybdis, for at the end of the Session he received an anonymous note in these terms— Will Mr. Wilkinson take the advice of an old friend and make longer speeches (if any) and upon subjects he understands, so that they may be worth reporting, and not fritter away his reputation on a few words which go for nothing. He was afraid many hon. Members of that House were not likely to fall into the same error. There were in the House a large number of Gentlemen of the long robe, and, although he was quite willing to acknowledge the great advantages which the House derived from their legal education and acumen, it must be confessed that the practice of forensic art did not lead to habits of condensation. Clients were not apt to be very well satisfied with a short statement of their cases. He had had occasion to employ counsel in connection with railway business, and he must admit that he was not at all satisfied if they made short speeches. He paid very heavy fees, and he thought he was entitled to have the benefit of all that the learned Gentleman could say on his behalf—but he objected strongly to the practice being carried out in that House. He found from the statement he had prepared, that there were 273 Members of that House who had not spoken at all during the Session. There were 209 who had not spoken for more than half-an-hour. There remained 170 Members, of whom fifty-five had only spoken once this Session, so that the monopoly of speaking was confined to a comparatively small number of Members. He hoped, under those circumstances, that his Motion would be supported by a majority of the House. He was aware that he laboured under this disadvantage—that, unfortunately, many of the non-talkers had, he apprehended, left for the country, and therefore he could not have their votes. The plan he suggested had been successfully adopted in America, and he believed that if it received the sanction of the House the progress of public business would be considerably facilitated.


seconded the Motion.


Sir, the object which my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth has in view—that of shortening the debates in this House, and increasing the amount of real business transacted in the course of the Session, must in the abstract have the assent and concurrence of every hon. Member. I confess, however, that I do not think that the particular method by which he proposes to accomplish his object is one which I should recommend this House to adopt. In the first place, I think anything that tends to restrain the freedom of speech, either in this House or out of it, is not altogether in harmony with the spirit of our constitution. The foundation of that freedom, in my opinion, is, that you should leave it to the man who speaks to judge whether what he says is worthy of being uttered and listened to, the matter of his speech being subject to the criticism of those who hear or of those who may afterwards read it. It would be quite inconsistent and at variance with the manner in which the debates of this House are conducted that any such Motion as the present should be adopted; what is more, it might indeed be attended with great practical inconvenience. Many of us recollect that, not long ago, on a Wednesday evening a majority of the House were exceedingly anxious that a certain measure should come to a division, and I am afraid that, had my hon. Friend the Member for Kerry (Mr. H. Herbert) been on that occasion subject to the proposed restriction, he would not have been able to make the speech by which he contrived to keep up the attention of the House till the arrival of the critical hour, and thus accomplished the object which he had in view. [Mr. SPOONER: Hear, hear!] The hon. Member for North Warwickshire did not, of course, approve that speech, but I do not think it was at all an abuse of the privilege which my hon. Friend (Mr. H. Herbert) possessed. No doubt in an assembly consisting of so large a number of persons as the House of Commons, every one being free to speak when he pleases, there must necessarily be a great deal of time lost in discussion. That is an inevitable consequence of our composition, and any attempt to alter it would be an attempt to alter human nature, and could not possibly be successful. But I must say, with regard to the abuse of the privilege by long speeches, I do not think, comparing the present Session with times gone by, that the Members are particularly chargeable with any abuse of that privilege. I remember the time when the speeches in this House were confined to far fewer Members than now, and extended to much greater length, when hardly any one spoke who did not prolong his observations for an hour and a half or two hours. I remember the case of a worthy Baronet—whose name I need not give, a Surrey Member—who began a speech at five o'clock. A friend of his, at the end of two hours, went to Clapham, drank tea, played a game of whist, and returned to the House, when ho found his Friend still on his legs. These things do not happen now-a-days, for there is a sort of control exercised by the House over Members who speak. It is very seldom now that any Member intrudes on the House longer than he finds to be really necessary, but unquestionably there are subjects on which it is essential that Members who have information to give, or objections to urge, or defences to make, should be allowed a good deal of time to state their views to the House, and where any restriction of the kind proposed by my hon. Friend (Mr. Wilkinson) would not have the effect of really shortening the debate, but would materially impede the enlightenment of the House on the matter which they had to decide. I think my hon. Friend has not exactly hit the right nail on the head. There is a great deal of time wasted, but, though he has stated that there is a comparatively small number of Members who take part in the debates, still I think the prolongation of the debates is caused, not by the length of the speeches, but by the multitude of speakers, and that is a circumstance arising out of the change which has taken place in the constitution of the House of Commons. When a great body of the Members of the House sat for small places and close boroughs their constituents did not much care whether they spoke or not, and they were consequently little urged by external pressure to make long speeches. But now every Member has constituents who expect that his voice should from time to time be heard in the House; and, consequently, there is a greater number of Members who take part in the debates than was formerly the case. Now, although it may be inconvenient to-us to sit here longer than we should otherwise do at night and in the season, yet, looking to the interests of the country, and to the consideration which the House of Commons ought to have in the country, I would rather see the House err on the side of lengthened debates than err in not discussing measures brought in by the Government, or Motions that may be made in consequence of the conduct which the Government may pursue. There is, however, one misapplication of the privilege of debate on which my hon. Friend's Motion does not touch, but which has prevailed very much in the course of the present Session—I mean the licence that is taken with regard to the Motion on Fridays for the adjournment of the House over till Monday. Strictly speaking, I believe you would be acting quite right, Sir, in enforcing the strict orders of the House, that a person speaking on the question of adjournment should speak on that question alone, and give reasons for or against it; but the Motion that the House shall adjourn from Friday till Monday is now considered to be a signal for every sort of question being brought forward, and in this way we lose many hours every week that might be devoted to public business. How far the House ought to restrict that licence, and how far opportunity should be given to Members to bring forward questions in which they take an interest on these occasions I will not say, hut unquestionably more time is lost by these Friday evening discussions than by the long speeches to which the Motion of my hon. Friend refers. I am of opinion, with all deference to my hon. Friend—and I must admit, he is himself an example of the principle he contends for, as he always speaks to the purpose and not longer than is necessary—that the Motion he has submitted is not one that the House ought to adopt. The principle he pleads for is one that should be recommended to the private reflection of those who take part in our debates. Those who bring any particular case or question before the House ought to feel that it is their duty to ponder well beforehand what they have to say, and to clothe their ideas in as few words as are compatible with making their purpose clear to the House; and to a great extent I think that is done. There are move Members capable of speaking with credit to themselves and with advantage to the House than used to be the case in former times. Formerly, when a debate took place, it was merely a combat between two or three of the leaders on one side and two or three on the other, and the rest of the House were not expected to take any part in it; but now the House has an abundance of Members possessing great talent and knowledge and learning, who can give useful in formation on all matters that come under the consideration of Parliament, and though we may suffer from the length to which our debates are in consequence carried, yet that by no means ought to be considered an evil. On the contrary, the debates contain more mutter and convey more information to the country than was the case in former times, and therefore I do not regret the time that is spent in listening to those speeches. My hon. Friend having given his advice on this subject, which, if taken with due allowance, will be useful to us, I do not doubt, in another Session, I hope he will content himself with the principle he has enunciated, and not press his Motion to a division, as, in my opinion, it is one that would not he conducive to the object he has in view or of advantage to the public service.


said, it appeared to him that the real remedy lay in the hands of the leading Members of the House; for it was they who indulged in the practice of making those long speeches, and over them the House generally had no control. He could not agree with his noble Friend at the head of the Government that it would be advisable to deprive Members of the right of introducing discussions on the Motion for the adjournment of the House on the Fridays; on the contrary, he believed that by means of that right, subjects were disposed of in the course of a few hours which would otherwise occupy whole evenings. He was convinced that the adoption of the Motion of the hon. Member for Lambeth would be inconsistent with the freedom of debate in that House.


said, he had received a letter from a gentleman in the United States, who had been Chairman of the House of Representatives during two years, arid who deposed to the entire success of the rule adopted in that country since the year 1842, for limiting the period during which Members of the House of Representatives could speak at any one time. He believed that the course recommended by the hon. Member for Lambeth in that case must sooner or later be adopted.


said, he must admit that the noble Lord at the head of the Government had advanced some very sound objections to the Resolution of the hon. Member for Lambeth; yet he (Mr. W. J. Fox) was one of those who thought that much time was wasted in that House, and he confessed he was in hopes that the noble Lord would have applied his own mind to remedy the evil. For that evil the noble Lord himself, the right hon. Gentlemen who had acted with him, and the leaders of parties generally were, in his opinion, in the main responsible. He thought that a great improvement would be effected if those right hon. Gentlemen would change their habit of speaking at the end or a debate, and would speak at the beginning instead. It was the practice now for one leader to lie in wait to trip up another—for an orator on one side to keep his mouth shut until he should have the pleasure of cutting up an orator on the other side at a late period of the evening, when the House was in an excited state, and enjoyed such gladiatorial exhibitions. But what became of the discussion meanwhile? It began, say between five and six o'clock; at seven the House was deserted. Gentlemen went and dined, or wrote their letters, and those who remained were left at the mercy of anybody who thought it worth his while to speak to a bare quorum—not always even to that. Then, at about ten o'clock, those who took the lead came, and astonished the House with a succession of able and brilliant speeches. Now, if they would be so good as to open the debate, the House would, in the first three or four speeches. have the whole matter before it, and none would follow except such independent Members as might have some information to communicate, or could throw some additional light on the subject. Gentlemen would not then, for very shame, go on reiterating what had been already well said; in a comparatively short period the subject would be ripe for decision, and the result would be a great saving of time.


said, he should support the Resolution, but he thought that the object in view might be attained by an alteration in the mode of conducting public business, as well as by the shortening of speeches.


in reply, said, he thought it better to take the sense of the House on the subject, because it was desirable to see whether the Motion would meet with any support. The principle might be adopted as an experiment, and there would be no difficulty in going back to the old practice if it should be considered necessary, or the proposed rule might be suspended on extraordinary occasions. He (Mr. Wilkinson) believed no one would gain so much, by the adoption of the Motion, as the noble Lord himself, whose attendance in that House was unwearied, most assiduous; so much so, that he (Mr. Wilkinson) felt quite ashamed to go away and leave the noble Lord, hour after hour, and night after night, attending watchfully to the public business. Indeed, he knew not how the noble Lord was able to give such an attendance—taking into consideration the amount of business he must have to transact in the course of the day. He did not know how long the noble Lord meant to last, but the labour he underwent was almost beyond human endurance.

Motion made, and Question put,— That, except upon the introduction of a measure to the House, no Member do speak for more than half an hour at one time upon the same question; nor upon any occasion for more than one hour.

the House divided:—Ayes 30; Noes 57: Majority 27.