HC Deb 11 May 1860 vol 158 cc1161-9

Sir, I am anxious to draw attention to a question of considerable importance connected with the forms of the House which regulate the order of our business. I have observed with great surprise in the Votes that last night the House having gone into a Committee of Ways and Means, and certain Resolutions imposing licence duties upon refreshment-houses having been adopted by the Committee, those Resolutions were, contrary to the universal practice of the House, reported forthwith, and without the usual interval of at least a day. I cannot but conceive that this course of proceeding was taken entirely by inadvertence. I believe I am correct in stating that no precedent whatever can be found for the Report of Resolutions to the House immediately after their adoption in Committee of Ways and Means. I beg the House to observe this is not a mere matter of form; there is a great deal of substance in this as in many another form of the House. I must beg the House to observe that these Resolutions in Committee of Ways and Means are the first step taken towards the imposition of a tax, and we all know that in the case of certain taxes the moment the Resolutions imposing them are reported to the House the Revenue Department at once begins to make the levy. So that by reporting such Resolutions to the House forthwith—immediately upon their passing the Committee—no opportunity is afforded to the House, or to those hon. Members who were absent from the Committee—of reconsidering the matter, and finally determining whether it is expedient to levy a tax of the kind proposed. As I said before, I cannot help thinking that these Resolutions were so reported by mistake, and I hope the House will agree with me in holding that the respect which is duo to our forms renders it necessary that in reference to the future we should revert to this proceeding and perhaps declare the Report null and void; so that it may appear on our Journals that this irregularity is not to be established as a precedent.


Sir, I wish to make a few remarks on the subject to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, and which is certainly one of the most important which can possibly engage the attention of the House. It is one of the gravest possible questions. It is unnecessary for me to dilate at all on the value of the forms of the House, which have been devised by the experience of our predecessors for the welfare of the public. It may sometimes be a question whether some of these forms may not be insisted on too closely, and whether they may not be unnecessarily multiplied; although I believe that all those in this House who are most experienced in the conduct of public affairs are of opinion that we should approach the revision of them with the utmost caution. But there is one point upon which it is impossible there can be two opinions, and that is, that when a question of taxation is concerned it is incumbent on the House to observe with the greatest nicety, and even reverence, the forms which have been devised to prevent any rash decision on a subject which may involve the most vital interests of the country. It always has been the rule in all questions of Supply and Ways and Means, where the House has come to a decision in Committee, that decision should not be reported on the same day. If there were no formal Standing Order to that effect, the spirit of all our Standing Orders goes to that effect; but we have among our Rules one which positively directs that "Any Report of Resolutions from the Committees of Supply and Ways and Means, is ordered to be received on a future day." I believe there is no precedent upon our Journals of a contrary course having been taken; and I think every Gentleman who has given any consideration to the subject will agree with me that a more prudent regulation was never adopted by this House. I recollect a case, if my memory does not deceive me, in which even the prorogation of Parliament was postponed one day in order that a Resolution agreed to in Committee of Ways and Means that the Government were rather unexpectedly called upon to enter into should be duly reported. I was aware of the circumstance to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, and it was my intention to have asked the House to consider it this evening; but in consequence of the interesting, though rather various nature of the business that has engaged us, I thought that on the whole it would be better to delay the matter till Monday, which was the first Government day after the thing complained of happened, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer should ask us again to go into Committee on the Wine Licences Bill. I should have been unwilling on that occasion to make any observations which might have conveyed any censure even by implication upon any Member of this House, whether on the Treasury bench or elsewhere, and the only reason why I should have brought forward this very grave subject would have been that the House should take steps to prevent the course which was followed last evening from being hereafter quoted against us as a precedent; because there probably might be circumstances in which, with such a precedent, public business might be hurried through in a manner which would have a very injurious effect upon even the public fortunes. But, as the right hon. Gentleman has brought forward the subject, it is impossible for me to pass it over in silence. I agree with him that it is not sufficient that the Government should express their opinion that the course taken last evening was an inadvertence, and should not be drawn into a precedent:—I think we ought to have some record of the opinion of the House itself upon the point, because an expression of opinion on the part of the Government, however satisfactory to us, would not at all influence our successors, and upon our Journals this very dangerous precedent would appear without any countervailing record. I think, moreover, that where there is no doubt that a mistake has been committed merely from inadvertence it is more suitable to the dignity of the House and more agreeable to all of us that the remedial course should be undertaken by the Government themselves. I do not at all wish to take the matter into my own hands, and I dare say the right hon. Gentleman who, with his knowledge of the forms of the House, has properly introduced the question is equally averse to undertaking it; but if the noble Lord, the leader of the House, would on Monday take some steps in the matter, I think it would be satisfactory to the House. I think that it should be recorded that the proceedings of last evening, so far as they relate to the Resolution adopted in Committee of Ways and Means, are null and void, and that care should be taken that in future such Resolutions should be duly and properly reported to the House.


, the Chairman of Committees of Ways and Means, said, if there was any irregularity in our proceedings last evening, I am bound to say that I am primarily responsible for it. It will be fresh in the recollection of the House that last evening there were on the paper two Orders of the Day, one preceding the other. The Order for a Committee of Ways and Means stood first, and in that Committee there appeared upon the paper a notice of the intention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to move certain Resolutions imposing a duty upon wine licences. The next Order was the Wine Licences Bill. It was necessary, in order to pass that Bill through Committee, that the preliminary Resolutions imposing a duty upon wine licences should, in the first instance, be adopted in a Committee of Ways and Means. The Committee of Ways and Means sat, and the Resolutions, which were discussed at considerable length, were framed by the Committee after more than one division. After they were passed, and after I vacated the Chair, I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as is the usual course, upon what day he proposed that the Resolutions should be reported. I do not at all wish to convey to the House that the right hon. Gentleman expressed a desire that the usage and practice of the House should be departed from; but I understood him to intimate that it would be convenient if the Resolutions could be promptly reported, in order that they might be inserted as clauses in the Wine Licences Bill, which stood next upon the list of Orders of the Day. I said—not having at the moment any opportunity of consulting the Journals or the authorities of the House—that upon principle, and with reference to the practice of the House in cases of emergency, I saw no objection to that course. I was aware that there was no Standing Order against it, and therefore I thought, if circumstances existed which rendered it desirable to depart from the ordinary practice of the House, that the House was the master of its own proceedings. But at the same time I did say that the Motion was one which I could not make on the steps of the Speaker's chair in the usual manner, and that the Minister who desired to have it made should himself state his wish to the House, and I did intimate—not, I think, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—that in my opinion, if any hon. Gentleman objected to the course proposed to be taken, it should not be insisted upon. I considered that with that precaution there could be no objection to the immediate reporting of the Resolutions adopted in Committee of Ways and Means, with a view to their insertion as clauses in the Bill which stood as the next Order of the Day. It is not for me to say whether it is incumbent upon the House to suffer no departure whatever, under any circumstances which may arise, from its ordinary practice. My own private opinion is, that for the House to impose such a restriction upon itself would be to create an unnecessary impediment to the despatch of public business; and not having any opportunity of consulting the Journals or the authorities of the Douse, I certainly did, upon principle, and with regard to the practice in the case of ordinary Bills, which are sometimes passed through their several stages without the usual intervals, intimate my belief that if the House consented, upon the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to the prompt reporting of the Resolutions passed in the Committee of Ways and Moans, there could be no objection to that course being taken. However, I am free to say that if I had had an opportunity of consulting the Journals, and if I had found that they were entirely destitute of precedents, I should not have advised such a step to be taken. But at the same time I trust the House will not assent to the extreme measure of declaring the proceedings of last evening null and void. They are not null and void; they are perfectly valid. In the absence of any Standing Order prescribing a particular mode of procedure, it is competent for the House to vary its own practice. Putting it as high as you please, this is merely a matter of practice. The practice of the House is departed from when a sufficient emergency arises; nay, the Standing Orders of the House themselves are suspended for the purpose of facilitating public business; and therefore to say that the proceedings of last evening are null and void is to make an assertion contrary to the rules and the practice of the House. They may have been inexpedient; the emergency may not have been sufficient; but, in the absence of any Standing Order bearing upon the point, it is not competent for the House to say that they are null and void. I contend, without fear of contradiction, that, however inexpedient it may have been for the House to depart from its ordinary practice in this particular instance, the prompt reporting of the Resolutions of the Committee of Ways and Means was perfectly regular and in accordance with our Standing Orders, and that the action taken upon that Report cannot be impeached. I am prepared to admit having had an opportunity of consulting the authorities of the House and of examining the Journals, though not very carefully, and not having found an instance of a similar departure from the ordinary practice of the House, that the course taken last evening should not be drawn into a precedent; but, at the same time, I confidently maintain that it is perfectly valid and cannot be impeached.


I do not propose to enter at present into any argument as to what ought to be done on a future occasion, because I think that should be deliberately considered by the House. But I rise to express, on the part of the Government, their concurrence with my hon. Friend who has just sat down, with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kilmarnock, and with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire, that adherence to the Orders and Rules of proceeding in all matters of Supply and Ways and Means is much to be desired, and ought very carefully to be observed. In the Book which contains the Rules and Orders of Proceeding, at page 94, I find it stated that any Report of Resolutions from Committee of Supply or Committee of Ways and Means is ordered to be received on a future day. Everybody is aware that that is not only the usual, but the uniform practice. My hon. Friend who has just sat down has correctly stated what occurred last evening. When the Committee was concluded, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked what day the Resolutions should be reported. A suggestion was passed down that if he thought proper it might be reported immediately. On the spur of the moment, feeling the convenience of putting the clause in the Bill as soon as possible, he adopted that suggestion, but he called attention to the circumstance; so that there was no concealment. Therefore, at the moment, there was no practical inconvenience in the departure from the rule; but I quite agree that it is unfortunate there should be any departure from an established rule of that kind. Having so stated my opinion, the House will see that it is far from the desire of the Government that this departure should be drawn into a precedent or occur again. I am extremely sorry that this discussion should have arisen after my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer had left the House; but before he left I had a conversation with him, in which I expressed my own opinion with regard to the irregularity, and he stated to me he entirely agreed with me, and he would consider whether on Monday he should not take the course which the right hon. Gentleman opposite has suggested—namely, make a statement to the House on the subject at the commencement of business.


—I wish to address the House on the subject of the order of their proceedings last night, which has just been brought under discussion. There is no doubt whatever about the correctness of the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman of the force of the rule which he has mentioned, that no Resolution should be reported to the House on the same day that it has been passed in the Committee. I think that, whether our Standing Order actually extends to that point or not, there is no doubt that the practice and the spirit of the Standing Order does so extend, and ought to have the same force in our proceedings. When I returned to the House, after an absence of some time, the Chairman reported to me in' the usual way that the Committee had come to certain Resolutions, and that it should be reported forthwith. I did not put the Question. I said to the Chairman "What can the Resolution be which should make it fitting to report it forthwith?" I was in fact discussing that point with the Chairman when the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer rose and moved that the Report should be received forthwith. I understood that the matter had been previously spoken of in the House, and I imagined that the House was aware what was to be done, and that it was done by general consent. I did not feel that it became me when a Resolution was proposed to the House to decline to put it. No observation was made, and no objection was raised, on either side. I put the Motion to the House that the Report should be received forthwith; and as it passed, the Report was accordingly received. But I must express my opinion that the course was irregular; and I think that it will be better for the general conduct of business that we should not pass by this irregularity with simple observation, but that on a future occasion and on the earliest occasion—I see no objection myself to this evening—it should be corrected.


, referring to some observations which had been made by the Solicitor General at an earlier period of the evening, said that there was a case reported in 2 Bingham, page 13, which established the principle that it was illegal to raise loans in this country to carry on war against a sovereign who was in amity with England.


—I am sure, Sir, that the whole House listened with great attention to the observations which you addressed to us with regard to the irregularity of our proceedings last night; and I took particular notice that, among other matters, you suggested that it was competent to us to amend that irregularity without further notice this evening.


Not until this Motion has been disposed of.


—Quite true, and I am not about to conclude with any proposition; but after the highest authority in the House has suggested to us that an irregularity has been committed in our proceedings, and that it is competent to us without further notice to amend it to-night, I think that it is a duty incumbent upon those who lead the House not to allow it to separate this evening without the correction of that irregularity. The leader of the House and the Gentlemen around him will advise as to the mode of proceeding proper to be adopted, and will, no doubt, consult the highest authority in the House upon the subject; but I do think that, after such an intimation from the Chair, it would not be becoming for us to separate without the irregularity being corrected.


—If the House will permit me, it will, perhaps, be better that I should make a single observa- tion with regard to the irregularity committed last evening. I quite admit the propriety of your suggestion, Sir, that some proceeding should be adopted to mark that it was an irregularity, and to prevent any similar irregularity occurring in future. At the same time I think that in what we do no blame ought to be imputed to any persons who were parties to that irregularity, because no blame properly attaches to any of them. It was an inadvertence, and as such it ought to be treated. I think that the best course would be for the House to allow us till Monday to consider what will be the best course to adopt; and I will undertake on that day to propose something that will attain the object which we have in view.

Motion agreed to.

House at rising to adjourn till Monday next.