HC Deb 19 July 1859 vol 155 cc51-66

said, he rose to move— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty representing the inconvenience of protracting the Session of Parliament during the summer months, and praying that Her Majesty would be graciously pleased to provide a remedy for such inconvenience by assembling Parliament for the despatch of business before Christmas. When he brought forward his Motion on a former occasion both the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) and the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli) had fully conceded all his arguments in favour of the proposed change, and stated that they would be prepared to give it further consideration on a future occasion. With such great authorities in favour of the early assembling of Parliament, he was at a loss to know by what perverse arrangement it was that they inverted the order of the seasons, and protracted their sittings during the summer months. This system took its date from comparatively modern times, for in former times the Session commenced in autumn and terminated on the Royal birthday. He should prefer to discuss this question rather on grounds of public utility than on those of private convenience; but the House could not fail to see how the efficiency of their proceedings was interwoven with this subject. Calm debate and attention were scarcely to be expected at midnight at this time of year. He would frankly admit that hon. Members ought not to allow any consideration of personal ease or comfort to interfere with the discharge of duties which they had voluntarily undertaken, but yet they had a right to expect that those duties should not be rendered unnecessarily severe by their being exposed to the pestilential atmosphere of the overgrown sewer, in the midst of which they had built their House precisely at that period of the year when its foul abominations had the greatest power. The first sanitary officer of the City, writing on the 11th of June, gave it as his opinion that the state of the river was considerably worse than it had been some weeks previously, and that organic impurity was abounding in it. And it must be expected that each succeeding year, for some time to come, this state of things would grow worse, notwithstanding all the efforts which might be made to the contrary. While it was evident, therefore, that the present system must be most injurious to the health of Members, let them also see how prejudicially the public interests were affected by it. Under ordinary circumstances, at this time of the year, the noble Viscount at the head of the Government, and those who shared his kind and generous feeling, would be engaged in the doleful task known as the massacre of the innocents. Their hearts naturally beat with sympathy for the fate of those measures which had been ushered into existence with every appearance of prosperity, but which were thus cut short never to bloom again—it was natural that compassionate parents should mourn for their measures, and refuse to be comforted because their favourite Bills were not; but they were not the only sufferers. The House could not fail to perceive how much public time was lost, how many valuable interests were retarded, and how much public business was interfered with, through the necessity of getting rid of Bills by this summary process. But even in Bills which escaped the slaughter and arrived at full maturity, they might see the impress of this fatal season in the imperfect and unfinished state in which they left the House, it being perfectly impossible that they could receive that consideration which, under more favourable circumstances, would be their due. The House would remember the protracted debate on the Divorce Bill, when his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the learned Attorney General, who now fought tinder a common banner, had wielded and directed against each other those weapons of debate of which they were such perfect masters. That was a Bill of which, as affecting one of the most sacred functions of life, it was impossible to exaggerate the importance, or the beneficial effects which it was calculated to confer; but the House would remember that the most important provisions of that Bill were hurried over at morning and evening sittings with a feeble amount of energy and power. It could therefore be no wonder that it had failed to a great extent in the purpose for which it was designed, that of relieving Parliament from the number of private divorce Acts of Parliament which were continually introduced, and that, in order to carry out the objects of its promoters, they would be obliged to pass another Act for its amendment. His remarks with regard to that Bill applied to many others. So much of crudeness had the character of their general legislation acquired that it had become a standing reproach that three Acts of amendment were required to bring the original Act into working order, and this was to be attributed to the fact that the House would insist on passing them at a time when careful examination was almost out of the question. But it was objected to his proposal that, practically, it would not tend to shorten the duration of the sittings of Parliament. ["Hear, hear !"] He was prepared for that cheer, and he hoped he should be able to answer it. Reference was also made to the fact, that Sessions which had sometimes commenced in November had yet not terminated before the usual time. But he maintained that the experiment of an autumn Session had never yet been fairly carried out, for whenever such a Session had been held it was always with some special object, such as the passing of a Bill of indemnity, or to decide the fate of a Ministry, and not to enter on the general business of legislation. He submitted that in order to ensure a fair trial to an autumnal Session, to make their financial year commence, as it had formerly done, in January instead of April, and to alter the time for giving notice of private Bills, thus enabling themselves to dispose of the private Bills, and to Vote the Supplies before Christmas, so that the Chancellor of the Exchequer might be enabled, immediately after the reassembling, to make his financial statement, instead of being obliged, as at present, to wait till after Easter. If this arrangement were carried out, they might be able to lay it down as an inflexible rule, that the House would not sit for the despatch of business after the 1st of June. He was prepared for the opposition of Gentlemen constituting what might be called the sporting interest, but while he regretted that he should be doing anything that would interfere with their pursuits, he must say that he thought the first thing that ought to be considered was the engagements and business of the House. But he maintained that he was, in fact, giving more than he asked; all he proposed was, to take six weeks from those hon. Members before Christmas, and in return he proposed to give them the entire of the month of June to spend with their friends before the glorious 12th of August. If he encroached on pheasant shooting in November, he made up for it by allowing them to devote additional time to yachting, a pursuit which was daily growing into greater consequence. The argument, that the present system had been adopted at the time of the Union, for the convenience of the Irish Members could no longer hold good, by reason of the greatly improved postal and passenger communication, which rendered Dublin, for Parliamentary purposes, almost as near as Devonport or Portsmouth. The question which next arose was, as to the time this alteration, assuming it to be desirable, could be most conveniently carried into effect; and he submitted that, whether with regard to the general interests, or to those of the House, the present was the period at which it could most advantageously be adopted. There were just now some forty election petitions awaiting adjudication, and some of these, it was said, would give rise to a very protracted inquiry. Now, while on the one hand, a constitutional objection existed to the postponement of this inquiry to any very lengthened period, he could not help thinking that with the thermometer ranging between 80° and 90°, with the windows of the Committee rooms exposed to the fearful effluvia of the river, so as to exclude the only opening by which fresh air could be admitted, it would be most inconvenient to enter on such an inquiry, and that it would require all the dread power residing in Mr. Speaker and his officials to keep the election panel together. Lastly, he might remind the House that the great question of Reform had been bequeathed as a legacy to them by the late Parliament, the Sovereign had been committed to the subject in three or four successive speeches from the Throne, and no Ministry, least of all a Liberal Ministry, could afford to trifle with the question. He agreed entirely with the noble Viscount (Viscount Palmerston) in the reasons which had induced him to refrain from taking up that question during the present Session; but it would be accepted by the country as a gratifying proof of earnestness, if, instead of throwing it over to another year, when fresh complications might arise to prevent the fulfilment of that promise, he were to call the House together in November to consider that question, the immediate settlement of which was in every point of view so desirable. The noble Lord would, he thought, be rendering the country as well as individual men great service, if he were now to bring the Session to a close, with a view of assembling again immediately before Christmas, when both the Reform Bill and the election petitions could be carefully and properly considered.


said, that he wished every success to the Motion of his hon. Friend, though he was afraid its chances of success were much diminished from the strong opposition it would have to encounter from the legal as well as the sporting interest. Especially would this he the case from the Court of Chancery, which was often found to be as powerful in Parliament as it more legitimately was in another sphere. His principal reason for supporting the Motion was that it would bring the debates to a close in the month of June and he thought the hon. Member was en-titled to gratitude for making such a pro-position. The alteration in the time of their sittings would also be attended with another benefit, that of being able to devote a considerable portion of the day to the business of legislation. He considered that it would be much better for hon. Members to get up early—at six o'clock in the morning if necessary—than to be adjourning their debates very often at a time bordering on that hour. The British Parliament was to blame, he thought, for having allowed the evil habits of the days of Pitt and Fox to continue to the present time, and there was no reason why, when such changes had taken place in every other phase of society, Parliament should be the only body that refused to conform to the more enlightened spirit of the age. He did not know whether the noble Lord at the head of the Government would be the person who would have the merit of inaugurating the new and better order of things, but he felt convinced that a change more in accordance with the feelings and habits of the British people would some day be carried out, and that, whether the present Motion were successful or not, the more thinking portion both of the people and of the Parliament were favourable to its objects.


said, he did not think this was a Motion on which the House ought to divide without some consideration. Making every allowance for the eloquent speeches to which they had just listened, he must say that he thought the two hon. Gentlemen had mistaken the nature of the question with which they proposed to deal, fie did not think they quite understood the evils which they wished to cure. One of the principal evils was those interminable speeches in which the hon. Members indulged. Why did not the hon. Mover and Seconder propose to limit the duration of speeches, more especially of the speeches of the Treasury and Opposition benches? Did they suppose that they could alter the nature of the House of Commons by an Address to the Throne? What occurred every week in the Session? Most important questions, upon which the very existence of the country depended, were discussed in the presence of only thirty or forty Members; but let there be some question which involved no principle and was nothing but a fight for place, and 630 Members would run down to the House and attend debates for nine hours' duration for a month together. Could you, then, by a mere process of this kind change them all at once from politicians into men of business? The whole system of the House was one of procrastination and pottering with every question. Fifty questions were put down in the paper, two were disposed of and the rest were postponed. As long as that system continued no great reduction could be made in the time occupied by the Session. One great evil was the morning sittings on Wednesday, at which a rule prevailed not only repugnant to sound sense, but apparently calculated for the very purpose of shelving unpleasant questions. On that clay hon. Members who wished to obstruct any measure talked "by the clock," as it was called—that was to say, they talked until a quarter to six, when the Speaker was obliged by rule to put a stop to the debate, and the measure under discussion was therefore postponed to some other day. He believed that the House would gain 20 per cent in point of time if they had evening instead of morning sittings on Wednesday. The argument against the morning sittings on Wednesday was equally applicable to the proposition that the Session should terminate at a definite period. Nothing could be easier than to continally procrastinate with respect to any disagreeable question until at length the Session terminated. If the whole system of conducting their business were remodelled, they might get through their work perfectly well in four months.


said, that he was inclined to suggest that the House should meet within the first fortnight of January, so as to get really to work by the time they now usually assembled. There ought to be some rule as to the time within which measures should be introduced into Parliament, and the Estimates should be laid before the House soon after it met. He thought that no measure ought to be introduced after Easter, or, at all events, after Whitsuntide. The House of Lords had for some years made a rule to prevent the introduction of measures after a certain date. It was for the Government, and not for the House, to look to this matter.


said, the hon. Member for Walsall (Mr. Forster) proposed by this Motion to make a serious inroad upon English habits. A very large number of the Members of that House sacrificed their private convenience and comfort to an immense extent for public business. They lived in London during a great portion of the year, and during the rest of it they lived among their tenants in the country. If the Motion were acted upon, their present arrangements would be entirely broken up. He should, therefore, steadfastly oppose the Motion.


said, he would beg leave to remind the hon. Gentleman who had just spoken that the present system was itself an inroad upon English habits. The hon. Member for Walsall therefore simply proposed to revert to ancient English habits. Previously to the time of the Union the Members of that House used always to meet in the autumn, and the change was only then made out of consideration for Irish Members. The modern facilities for travelling rendered that consideration now no longer needful.


said, the hon. Mover and Seconder had entirely forgotten to submit any evidence that the adoption of this Motion would limit the action of Parliamentary eloquence, by which the duration of the Session was so much prolonged. Before the Reform Bill the number of hon. Gentlemen who thought it their duty to make speeches to satisfy their constituents was very much smaller than at present. Owing to the greater publicity now given to the discussions in that House, and the increased interest which constituents took in the speeches made by their representatives, a great number of Members who would otherwise wish to be silent were compelled to make speeches. It was perfectly obvious that if the Session should terminate of necessity on the 1st of June, a power would be given to a minority, unless the arrangements of the House were entirely changed, to stop the business of the country, in the same way as on Wednesdays business could be put an end to by debating until six o'clock. Again, if the House sat in November, not the smallest progress would be made before Christmas. He trusted that some Member of the Government would state the views of the Cabinet on the subject, but unless he heard something more practical than he had yet done he should oppose the Motion.


said, he thought the apprehension that, if a certain period were fixed for the termination of the Session, power would be given to any factious minority to stop the business of the country, was unfounded, because at present it was well known that there was a certain termination to the labours of the Session, and that was when grouse-shooting commenced. For his own part, he was obliged to the hon. Member for bringing forward the Motion, because the sacrifice he grudged most for the service of the country was the sacrifice of the warm and pleasant months. He did not suppose that the Motion would be successful on the present occasion, but he believed that the opinion in favour of it would become stronger.


Sir, I doubt whether there is in the House at this moment, or that at the present time of the year there could be obtained, such a full attendance of hon. Members as would be desirable to decide a question, which so much affects the conduct of business in this assembly. I did not, however, understand my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall to make the proposition that a particular day should be fixed at which the business of the country was to be brought to an end. Of course if he had made such a proposition the answer to it would be obvious, namely, that as on Wednesdays, when hon. Members do not like what is going forward, they go on talking until six o'clock, so would they delay the proceedings of the House if they objected to them, until, say the 1st of June, if that particular day should be fixed for the termination of the business of Parliament. I understand my hon. Friend's proposition to be this, that by meeting in autumn we should be enabled to do so much business before Christmas that we need not sit so long in summer as we are accustomed to do. Now, I cannot think that it can be said that such an arrangement would not afford a reasonable time for disposing of the business of Parliament. Whether the six weeks of the commencement of the Session be counted from November to Christmas, or at a much later period, it seems to me that we could do quite as much business in autumn as at any other period of the year. There is this to be said, certainly, in favour of an autumn meeting, we should not see that great desire amongst hon. Members generally of getting to the country, which is manifested when the House is found sitting in the middle of summer. I rather think it is probable that you would have the business more quickly and better clone in the winter months than it is generally in the months of July or August. I do not understand that the arguments of my hon. Friend are in any degree affected by what has happened when Parliament met in recent years before Christmas; because, as he very truly observed, it so happened that on the occasions alluded to Parliament had assembled for particular and special business. When it had disposed of that particular business before Christmas the early meeting of the House did not, of course, diminish the quantity of business in February or the following months; therefore it is in my mind no argument at all to say that when they had met before-Christmas they were not able to end the Session sooner than usual. As the hon. Member for Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck) properly remarked, there are, however, several other things connected with the conduct of business, which deserve likewise to be seriously considered. I do not think it is sufficient to say that by meeting early in November instead of February we should get at once over the difficulty. In the first place there is a much greater amount of business now for Parliament than in former times. I think it is deserving of our consideration whether we might not be able to facilitate and accelerate the conduct of public business by, in the first instance, submitting certain questions to persons who are conversant with their details, and by getting rid of some forms which were necessary in the times of our ancestors, but which are now quite unnecessary. Some of those forms occasion at present considerable delays. They regard especially the Estimates and Votes in Supply. By the Standing Orders of the House the Crown is debarred from getting Votes of Supply by any sort of surprise, a certain number of days being required to elapse after the meeting of Parliament before the Estimates can be laid on the table, though the Government may be prepared with the Estimates on the first day of the meeting of Parliament. Those arrangements, however, are in consequence of the Orders of the House, and are not the fault of the Government. There are many other instances in which the forms of the House interfere with a great amount of business. That is the main consideration, after all, in determining this question. I believe that the House of Commons goes through four times more business than any other legislative assembly in the world, and it does that business on the whole very effectually. There is, however, very little doubt but that the business of the country might, under different arrangements, be done within a shorter period of time. I cannot vote for the Motion as it at present stands, and I hope my hon. Friend will not press it to a division. There is no doubt a great change in our habits from what they were in former times. For example, Hannah More, when writing at the period of the accession of George III., said, "I have but one fault to find in our excellent young King, his birthday is on the 4th of June;—the consequence is that the people will be kept in London on that day. There will be no going out of town, and Parliament will be protracted as long as the commencement of June." Now that shows what the habits of the people were in that day. I think it almost time to return hack to the habits of former days.


said, the hon. Gentleman who made the Motion made it with great confidence, not only in the reasonableness of his proposition, but also in the anticipation of its success. The hon. Member who seconded the Motion did not appear, however, to entertain equal confidence. There was one defect in the speech of his hon. Friend who made the Motion—namely, that he could not prove in argument—very ingenious and very amusing as it was—any public ground for the change which he proposed. It did not appear to him that his hon. Friend showed by any argument or any statement of facts that six weeks between November and Christmas was a better period for the transaction of business than any other six weeks in the year, or that the country would obtain any benefit from the change. His whole argument rested on personal considerations; that was to say, that his hon. Friend found it very hot in the month of July, that he knew other friends of his who were like sufferers, that the Thames was disagreeable, that the Session had been interrupted, and that there had been a great loss of time. Appealing to those who objected to the change, the whole force of the appeal appeared to him to rest upon the personal feeling and preferences of those who supported the Motion. He unfortunately differed with his hon. Friend in opinion. He had had the misfortune to be present at several autumn Sessions, and he remembered being made exceedingly ill by the state of the House. It was true that they were very hot in the summer, especially when the summer was as hot as it had been last year and this year. But what was the state of the House in November and December? Why, hardly a man could hear himself speaking for the coughing, not coughing maliciously to interrupt a Member, but a mere effort of nature in consequence of physical affections produced by the fog, cold, snow, and the inclemency of the weather. You asked a certain Member to support a Motion, and you were told that he was confined to his bed by a severe fit of bronchitis or influenza caught by walking home the night before and geting wet to the skin from the disagreeable-ness of the season. Members came down wet and were obliged to sit in wet clothes. There were draughts of cold air, and they looked to the windows and complained of improper ventilation, which gave them cold. Taking the question simply on the physical ground, at which period of the year were hon. Members least likely to be rendered incapable of performing their duties by the state of atmospheric influences? But independent of these objections his opinion was that the early period of winter was much more unfavourable than the ordinary fine weather they were apt to have in the summer; and really it was paying too high compliment to the climate of this country to assume that the heat of the weather would ever interfere with the senatorial duties of hon. Members. He did not see, therefore, that there was any argument showing that the public interests would be better consulted by Parliament meeting in the end of November, instead of the end of January or beginning of February. The hon. Member himself had stated that the change proposed would involve considerable changes in other matters. The regulations as to the time when notices must be given of private Bills would have to be altered. The period of commencing the financial year must be altered, and these changes would necessarily produce considerable derangement. Of course, when once those changes were made there would be an end of the inconvenience; but as far as he had heard the subject discussed he had not heard any sufficient reason assigned for those changes. There were other considerations of another sort. It was said that Members thought of nothing but pheasant-shooting, hunting, and that sort of thing? but the fact was that in that and in the other House of Parliament there were many noble and hon. Members who had important functions in the country to perform. The public ought not to run away with the notion that all the Members of the Legislature were nothing but selfish men, having no other object of pursuit than their own personal amuse- ment. There were many who had great duties to perform in the country—hospitalities to exhibit, charities to administer, and functies and obligations to discharge, bonds which united class with class, the landlord with his tenant and labourers, which were of great importance to the well-being of the community to which they all belonged. The period at which those functions were called into operation more than at any other was the winter. That was just the time when the more wealthy had the means of showing kindness to those below them, and he should be very sorry if any unnecesary arrangement by Parliament interfered between the landlords and those who were dependent on them to prevent their mixing together at a period of the year when it was the custom of the rich to diffuse around them the advantages which their wealth enabled them to impart. There was one particular in which the public interest would be injured by the arrangement of his hon. Friends Nothing, in his opinion, was less conducive to the satisfactory performance of any sort of business, whether by an aggregate assembly or by an individual, than interposing a great break in that business. When once a man began he should go on. When the human mind got into a particular course of action, as long as the energies were kept directed to the object in view there was every probability that it would accomplish it well; but if the mind were called off from its begun course, and a long interval allowed to elapse, other thoughts would interpose, and before the original train of thought could be resumed there would be inconvenience and loss of time. If Parliament met in November it must adjourn over Christmas. For how long? A month at least—probably six weeks. [An hon. MEMBER: A fortnight.] There were country occupations, Quarter Sessions, and so forth, which would make it extremely inconvenient to adjourn for less than a month. They would not come back to work in the train of mind in which they left, and there would be a loss of time. It was said there was no reason why Irish Members should object, because now communication was not as in the time of Dr. Dagenham, who took a week to ride his hack from Holyhead to London, and a person could sleep one night in Dublin and the next in London. But Irish Members would not like to come over for a month's Session before Christmas, leaving their families in Ireland, and they would not think it worth while to bring them over, and take them back again to bring them over again. The same consideration applied also to Scotch and English Members, because hon. Gentlemen coming up for a short time before Christmas, with the expectation of going back, would not bring their families with them, and those separations would in many cases be exceedingly inconvenient to the person concerned. It appeared to him that they would gain nothing in point of despatch of the public business. The examples of the past were not encouraging for the future, It was very true that on many occasions Parliament had met early in consequence of some specific business to be done; but there were a great number of cases since the Union where Parliament had met early and sat as late as it would if it had not met until January. Parliament met on the 29th of November, 1802, and it went on sitting until the 12th of August, 1803. It met on the 22nd of November, 1803, and sat until the 31st of July, 1804. It met on the 30th of November, 1812, and sat until the 22nd of July, 1813. It met on the 4th of November, 1813, and sat until the 30th of July, 1814. It met on the 8th of November, 1814, and sat until the 12th of July, 1815. It met on the 21st of November, 1826, and sat until the 2nd of July, 1827. It met on the 6th of December, 1831, and sat until the 16th of August, 1832. It met on the 20th of November, 1837, and sat until the 16th of August, 1838. It met on the 23rd of November, 1847, and sat until the 5th of September, 1848. It met on the 11th of November, 1852, and sat until the 20th of August, 1853. It met on the 12th of December, 1854, and sat until the 12th of August, 1855. It met on the 3rd of December, 1857, and sat until the 2nd of August, 1858. These numerous instances showed practically that when Parliament had met before Christmas it sat just as late in the summer as it possibly could have done if it had met after Christmas. But his hon. Friend had touched the real point on which the whole thing turned. They might say what they pleased as to Parliament giving the tone to the manners and habits of the country, but it was the manners and habits of the country which influenced Parliament. Whether right or wrong, the habits and manners of the country had changed since the last century, when Parliament met earlier. All things were later. The hours of dinner were later. Perhaps people did not get up as early. But Parliament could not force them to rise early. They could not make a law that people should get up at six o'clock in the morning, and should go to bed at ten at night. They must adapt the proceedings of the House to the habits of the time. Morning sittings might be for the convenience of hon. Members, but if the House met every day at twelve, and went on meeting at twelve through the whole Session, it would be impossible for the departmental work of the Government to be carried on. He could assure the House from a long experience that it would be very inconvenient if hon. Members of that House connected with the different departments were to be sitting there all the morning, instead of attending to their official duties and transacting the business for which they were responsible. Parliament must adapt their proceedings to the habits of the times, and although an attempt forcibly to change the habits of the nation, and to induce them to revert to those of their forefathers a century ago, might be made by a despotic Government, it must be unsuccessful in a country in which no one would submit to be controlled in the daily arrangements of his occupation, whether public or private. He believed that something might be done in the manner suggested by his noble Friend the Member for London. The chief grievance after all complained of by his hon. Friend (Mr. Forster) was the great amount of business to be disposed of, and the short time allowed for its transaction. Certainly Parliament was now required to do much more business than it had to deal with in the last century. A much larger amount of private business was now brought before Parliament; private Members introduced many more measures for discussion, and the Government proposed many more measures for legislation. Frequent and prolonged discussions took place in Parliament upon questions of public interest, and if there was a large amount of business, private or public, to be dealt with, time must be given for its transaction. He thought the suggestions of his noble Friend deserved the serious attention of the House, and he was sure they would receive the best assistance and counsel from the Speaker with the view to the adoption of such measures as, without detriment to the public interests, might accelerate their proceedings. He hoped, however, that the House would not hastily adopt proposals founded upon merely temporary circum- stances, "for every summer might not be so hot as the present, the Thames might not always stink as it did now, and future Sessions might not be interrupted by dissolutions which necessarily delayed the progress of Parliamentary business.


said, he wished to express his readiness to withdraw the Motion. [Cries of "No, no !" and "Divide!"

Motion made, and Question put,— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, representing the inconvenience of protracting the Session of Parliament during the Summer months, and praying that Her Majesty would be graciously pleased to provide a remedy for such inconvenience by assembling Parliament for the despatch of business before Christmas.

The House divided;—Ayes 48; Noes 121: Majority 73.