HC Deb 09 April 1861 vol 162 cc341-50

said, he rose to move that, on any division in the Com- mittee of Supply, so soon as the voices have been called the doors be closed after strangers have withdrawn. The object of his Motion was to make a practical improvement in and to remove a scandal from the proceedings in Committee of Supply to which his Motion would exclusively apply. During the recess a number of Members—habitual supporters of the Government—wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, in which they remonstrated strongly against the increase of the expenditure of the country, and called for some decided measure to put a stop to it. They received a reply from the noble Viscount the Prime Minister, very civil, no doubt, but which did not lead to any practical result. But they had another answer, which, though not quite so agreeable as that of the noble Viscount, contained a great deal of good sense and practical wisdom. That answer was given them by The Times, which told them that it would be well if, instead of criticizing and attacking the Government, they themselves discharged their duties in the House by exercising a vigilant control over the public expenditure and over the voting of public money. That was practical sound advice, because if there was one privilege of the House which had always been more highly valued and considered more important than another it was the privilege of holding the public purse-strings, and it was on the power of considering every item of the expenditure and of granting or refusing the money that almost all the other privileges enjoyed by the House were founded. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the hon. Gentlemen who wrote the letter had some excuse for it, and also some answer to the arguments of The Times in the manner in which business was done in Committee of Supply. Generally speaking, some twenty or thirty Members, perhaps forty, were present when the House was in Supply. The business was not of a very exciting character and hon. Gentleman did not care much to come down. A Member walking down from his club to the House would meet another Member coming from the House, and would ask him "Well, what's going on down there?" the other would reply, "Oh, nothing but Supply;" and then both of them would go off about their own amusement. The twenty or thirty Members would sit discussing the various Votes, an objection would be made to one particular item perhaps, whereupon a discussion would arise, in the course of which hon. Gentlemen who had applied their minds to the subject, either professionally or otherwise, would give a great deal of valuable information, and the Government in their turn would defend the Vote and explain their reasons for objecting to its reduction. In that manner very instructive and interesting discussion took place on matters of detail not involving generally any public principle. Then a division would be called for, the bell would be rung, and 100 or 200 Gentlemen who had been in the library, the coffee-room, or some other place would rush in, crowd about the door, make a great confusion, each asking the other "What's it all about? What are we going to vote for?" Perhaps they would get an answer, perhaps not, but would simply follow some leader whom they saw going before into the lobby; but either way they would vote blindly, without any consideration of the merits of the case, and without having heard the arguments and the information which had been advanced on one side and the other. Consequently it was impossible, by argument of any sort whatever, to effect a reduction or alteration of an item in Supply. That was a great scandal, and it made Committees of Supply a perfect delusion and a farce. What he proposed, therefore, to remedy such a state of things was, that for the future, when a question was put and a division took place, in consequence of some Member challenging the decision of the Chairman, the doors should be shut as soon as strangers were withdrawn. Such a measure would allow those hon. Gentlemen to come in who were standing outside about the doors; but it would put a stop to the rush of uninformed Members from all parts. He had to deal with two objections. One was that, in consistency, they ought to apply the same remedy to the case of Committees on Bills. He admitted that there was a good deal to be said in favour of that proposition. An illustration of the argument was to be found in the proceedings of the other House, where Peers, although they might vote by proxy, on the different stages of a Bill in the House—which were presumed to depend on some general principle—were not allowed that privilege in Committee where votes were taken on matters of detail. And thus, no Peer could vote in Committee unless he were present. Although there might be reasons for imposing the restriction which he proposed in the case of all Committees, those reasons applied with much greater force to Committees of Supply, because discussions in Committee of Supply were more particularly on matters of detail, and if they were not fully discussed in that House the House of Lords could not set right any mistake or omission, as there was no such thing as Committee of Supply in the other House. The other objection was that the rule which he proposed would give a great advantage to the Government. If that were so, he hoped he should have the votes of the right hon. Gentlemen who sat on the Treasury bench. But he rather expected they would oppose the Motion, and, if they did, he might content himself by saying that their votes gave a sufficient answer to the objection. It was stated that the Government could keep their friends in the House to vote, whereas the Opposition and independent party could not. If it were true that the Government could keep hon. Members to vote anything they chose, and that other hon. Members had no regard for the interests of the country, but would go away and not care about voting, proceedings in Committee of Supply became a farce an absurdity. He did not think so meanly of hon. Members as to believe that they could not be induced by motives other than those which were usually held out to supporters of a Government to do their duty to the country. No doubt, many hon. Members talked largely about economy on the hustings and did not attend to economy when in the House. His proposal would have the advantage of showing the constituencies who were present in Committee of Supply, and hon. Members would not be able to boast on the hustings of a vigilant care for the public interests if they sat in the coffee-room, the smoking-room, or some other place of recreation, until, on the bell ringing, they rushed in to vote, without knowing what they were voting about, merely to have their names appear in the division lists published by the newspapers. Many hon. Members voted for the Government in Committee of Supply because they had not heard the arguments against particular votes, and, therefore, the regulation by necessitating their presence would lead to more useful and practical discussions. He should leave the matter upon its own merits to be dealt with as the House should deem fit, but at the same time he felt bound to express his opinion that if the Motion were carried the public interest and the public purse would be more efficiently and properly protected. He would, therefore, conclude by moving— That on any Division, when the House is in Committee of Supply, so soon as the voices have been taken the doors be closed immediately after strangers have withdrawn.


seconded the Motion.


The hon. Baronet who has made this Motion assumed that every member of the Government who gave his vote upon the question would necessarily be determined in that vote by the consideration whether or not the Motion is likely to prove advantageous to the Government in divisions in Committee of Supply. I hope that his supposition is altogether unfounded. I trust that I may have the credit of forming a dispassionate opinion on this question, and that I may not be supposed incapable of looking at it as a general question affecting the proceedings of this House without reference to the party interests of the Government for the time being. Indeed, my own opinion is that if this Motion were carried it would be advantageous to the Government for the time being in divisions in Committee of Supply. That is my opinion of the effect of it; but I hope I am capable of forming an opinion upon the propriety of adopting it without looking to this consequence. I think the hon. Baronet is influenced by his forensic habits. He assumes, in making this proposition to the House, that it forms a judicial tribunal—that it constitutes a sort of jury who simply sit here and listen to arguments addressed to them during debate. That is not the view which our ancestors took of the habits of a deliberative assembly. In the other House it is even permitted to Peers to send their proxies, and to vote without having been present at any portion of the debate or hearing the question put. The rule of this House is different. No Member is entitled to vote in a division unless he is present in the House when the question is put. The restriction, however, does not go beyond being present at the time when the question is put. The hon. Baronet attempts to introduce one practice for Committees of Supply, and another on all other occasions. I think it must be evident that if the House granted the proposal with respect to Committees of Supply they must speedily introduce the same practice with regard to other Committees. It is impossible to establish any practical distinction between Committees of Supply and Committees on Bills, for example. The hon. Baronet gives the impression that the ordinary course in Committee of Supply is for some twenty Members to be present, and some 200 or 300 Members to rush in from the lobbies or elsewhere for divisions. I will appeal to the experience of hon. Members whether this is anything like a correct description of the state of the case? I have held the office of Secretary of the Treasury, and it has been my duty for several years to move the Miscellaneous Estimates. My recollection is that during the discussion of the Miscellaneous Estimates the House is extremely full, and much fuller than in Committees on Bills towards the end of the Session. I should say that if any hon. Member walks down to a morning sitting when an Irish or Scotch Bill is in Committee he will find the attendance not at all larger than the hon. Baronet describes as usually assembled during discussions in Committees of Supply. No doubt, during the consideration of technical questions relating to the army and navy, which are not very interesting to the majority of Members, there is rather a small audience; but it is my impression that, in general, the discussions in Committee of Supply are well attended. If, therefore, the proposed rule were to be laid down with regard to Committees of Supply, it is clear that it must be extended to other Committees, and, likewise, to other measures of importance. But if the rule be established, what will be its effect? It will be this:—No Member would be allowed to take part in the division on the reduction of a vote in Committee of Supply, unless he had heard the whole discussion, while on such a question as the second reading of a Reform Bill, which may affect the whole Constitution of the country, a Member might give his vote without having heard a word of the debate. It is obvious that a distinction of that sort cannot be preserved between the two cases. I do not think that the Resolution of the hon. Baronet would effect his purpose. He does not state in his Resolution that the presence of a Member during the whole of the debate is to be a condition of his voting; and, therefore, it is clear that the rule might be evaded. Supposing a Member came in five minutes before the division he would be entitled to vote, although practically he would have heard no more of the debate than if he had not entered the House till the bell rang. To carry out the hon. Baronet's view, no Member should he permitted to vote unless he has heard either the whole or a considerable portion of the debate. But how are you to decide how much of the discussion a Member is to hear? Is it to be measured by the number or by the length of the speeches, by the excellence of the oratory or by the force of the arguments? I think the hon. Baronet would have to lay down the same rule in regard to the House that is applied to juries. A jury is compelled to hear the speeches of counsel, the evidence of witnesses, and the summing up of the Judge, and is not allowed to quit the box until the close of the trial. In the same way, in order to carry into effect the proposal of the hon. Baronet, we should be given in charge to the officers of the House, to be detained here until we have delivered our verdict. It is, of course, very desirable that hon. Gentlemen should not vote on questions of which they are entirely ignorant; but it is quite possible that a Member may form a very clear and correct opinion on a question without hearing all the arguments adduced in this House. I should certainly be extremely slow to lay down the doctrine that an hon. Gentleman who has not heard the whole of a debate should not be entitled to vote, although he hears the question put by the Chair. It is assumed that every one who hears the question put is capable of forming a rational judgment on it, and I hope the House will retain that wholesome rule and adhere to its present practice.


said, he presumed the Motion of the hon. Gentleman was intended to abrogate the standing order, which was designated as the two minute rule, and which had been so usefully established on the Motion of his late lamented friend Mr. Muntz. He (Mr. Newdegate) hoped the House would forgive his recalling to their recollection the circumstances which had induced that salutary change in the standing orders, or rather the establishment of that salutary alteration. On the occasion of a momentous division, after the Earl of Derby came into office for the first time as Prime Minister—a division on the question of free trade and protection—it happened that a large number of the Members of that House came to the conclusion that they would avail themselves of their undoubted privilege—either to vote or abstain from voting, and had formed the determination not to vote in that division; of these forty-seven had to his personal knowledge left the House. This occurred upon a Motion made by the noble Lord at present at the head of Her Majesty's Government. He (Mr. Newdegate) himself went back into the House, with the present Duke of Richmond, to communicate to their friends the decision at which those who had left, had, arrived. There was then no rule as to the time that should elapse between the question being put and the doors being locked. Before the Duke of Richmond, then Lord March, and he could leave the House—before they could reach the door—without any notice, the doors were closed, and they were shut in, and by that means deprived of that which was their undoubted privilege, the option of voting or not voting. If a Member voted against what may be considered his party, his vote counted on a division two—one abstracted from his party and one added to the other party; but if he left the House he would only count one. It was in consequence of the surprise to which he had adverted that his lamented Friend (Mr. Muntz), who saw what happened, said to him immediately afterwards, "This shall never occur again, for I am confident the House of Commons does not intend to entrap Members into a division;" he represented these circumstances to the House, and the House then established the rule which had operated so advantageously in facilitating and securing the freedom of the deliberate expression of opinion on the part of the House. It was the only effectual safeguard against surprises—against hon. Members being locked in against their consent—and he trusted the House would adhere to a rule which had operated so well.


said, he thought that the Resolution contained a reflection on the House by the imputation that Members did not do their duty. It was, however, well known that a great part of the business of the country was done by hon. Members, not in that apartment where their debates took place, but at their own homes, or in Committees upstairs. Many a time he himself had not left the House from twelve at noon until two o'clock the next morning, being occupied the whole time upon public business; but was be to be told, as he was by the Resolution, that unless he heard every word of a debate in that particular room, he was to lose his privilege of voting? The Resolution was framed upon the principle of compelling every hon. Member, however much he might be otherwise engaged upon the business of the country, to listen to the eloquence of the hon. Baronet. A vast number of speeches were made in Committees of Supply, but they produced very little effect. One hon. Member had last Session made no fewer than seventy-nine speeches in Supply, but he had not saved a single shilling of the public money. Other Members had spoken nearly as often, but not a sixpence was knocked off the Estimates; and the hon. Baronet had himself made some clever speeches in Supply, but nothing had been gained by his eloquence. The proposed rule would be disadvantageous to the public service, and it would be disadvantageous to the character of the House, because it would imply that if Gentlemen were not listening to the speeches of the hon. Baronet they were neglecting their duty. As nothing could be more unfounded than such an imputation he should oppose the Motion.


said, he thought that the Motion was not without some cause. It frequently happened that some forty or fifty Gentlemen had listened to a debate and had become almost unanimous in support of a certain view, and when the division was taken there came a hundred and fifty Gentlemen who voted against them without having heard a word of the arguments on which they had formed their opinions. At the same time he perfectly agreed with his right hon. Friend (Sir George Lewis) that it was impossible the Resolution could be carried in its then shape, and that it would be unwise to pass any Resolution on the subject pending the Report of the Committee appointed to consider the best mode of expediting the conduct of public business, and which Report, let him add, was being a long time delayed. He should recommend his hon. Friend not to press his Motion to a division.


said, that, as the feeling of the House appeared to be against him, he would not trouble hon. Members to divide. His object was to apply a practical remedy to an admitted grievance, and to give additional effect to those speeches in Committee of Supply which the hon. Member for Derby said produced so little result, and which must continue to be equally without avail as long as twenty or thirty members rushed into the House for a division so ignorant of the subject under consideration that they had to say to all their friends round them, "What the devil is all this about?"


said, that after a Motion had been discussed it did not lie with its introducer to withdraw it without a division. If he went out alone he should insist on the hon. Gentleman not being allowed to withdraw his Motion.

Motion made, and Question, That on any Division, when the House is in Committee of Supply, so soon as the voices have been taken the doors be closed immediately after strangers have withdrawn.

Put, and negatived.