HC Deb 28 June 1861 vol 164 cc61-8

Sir, I wish to take this opportunity of calling the attention of the House to the present state of public business, and in doing so hon. Members will not, I trust, think I am unduly interfering with the course of that business which stands for this evening on the paper. We are now come to the 28th of June, and there remain, I believe, 200 Votes in Supply yet to be disposed of, besides which there a great many Bills of considerable importance, and which it would be very undesirable to drop owing to the circumstance that the House had not sufficient time to deal with them, still awaiting our consideration. So far as the Votes in Supply are concerned it is not, of course, for the Government to suggest to hon. Members the expediency of suppressing any observations which they may deem it to be their duty to make whenever the rules of the House admit of their doing so, but I would at the same time remind them that each of the last two Votes in Supply occupied the greater portion of an entire evening, and that if it should be thought necessary to discuss the remaining 200 Votes at equal length, a considerable amount of time must obviously elapse before we can bring our labours in Supply to a close. Now, the only conclusion which I wish to draw from that statement is, that when the Motion that you, Sir, leave the Chair in order that the House may go into Committee of Supply is made, it would be desirable—except, perhaps, on Fridays, for of those days I will not say anything, inasmuch as they are avowedly set apart for those amateur discussions in which we hebdomadally indulge — that hon. Member should refrain from interposing Motions except they happen to relate to matters of really urgent importance or are of a nature which may reasonably be expected to lead to some practical result. Mere statements of opinion on general questions it would, I think, be for the advantage of the public business, on those occasions, as far as possible to avoid. I may add that there are now lying on the table Bills of great public utility which it would be very undesirable that we should not pass this Session, and if, owing to protracted discussions on going into Committee of Supply, those Bills should be thrown over to a very late period of the Session, many hon. Members will complain—and not, perhaps, without some reason—that they are called upon to deliberate upon important measures at a time when the attendance in the House is small, when those who are interested in the business under discussion are away, and they will in all probability urge on the Government the postponement of those measures to another year. That course being, as a matter almost of necessity adopted, the House of Commons as a body, and the Government as forming part of it, are reproached with having done nothing, and with having allowed the Session to go by without passing any measure of great public utility. That, however, is, in my opinion, a reproach which is very often unjust so far as the Government are con- cerned, and which is not, I think, quite fair as far as regards the House of Commons in the aggregate. Hon. Members will, I trust, excuse the liberty which I have taken in making these suggestions, and will be as sparing as possible in the exercise of their privilege to raise discussions upon the Motion for going into Committee of Supply.


said, he was of opinion that the noble Lord had not made the observations which had just fallen from him one day too early; and, as an example of the necessity for adopting the advice they contained, he might refer to the inconvenience to which he, as well as other hon. Members was subjected, by the circumstance that public business of importance was not proceeded with—owing to the interposition of Motions on every variety of subject—in the order in which it was set down on the notice paper. That very evening no less than fifteen such Motions stood in the way of the House going into Committee of Supply, while upon the last occasion on which the order for Supply stood at the head of the list a single Motion, the discussion of which occupied five mortal hours, but ended like a flash in the pan, intervened to the detriment of the public business, while a most important measure, the Scotch Industrial Schools Bill, could not be brought on until just a quarter of an hour before midnight. Now, he had heard it advanced as a charge against the Government that they did not take steps to keep a House on those occasions; but he could quite understand how it was that hon. Members kept away in the early part of the evening when they knew that the really important business set down for consideration was not likely to come on until an advanced hour of the night. There, were, he might add, on the 21st ult., twenty-nine Motions on the paper on going into Committee of Supply, of which eleven stood in the names of Irish Members—a fact which showed how zealous they were in the discharge of their Parliamentary duties. He trusted, how-ever, the remarks just made by the noble Lord would have some effect in making hon. Members somewhat more chary of bringing forward such Motions, while he would also express a hope that hon. Gentleman would endeavour to compress their addresses to House within as small a compass as possible.


said, he did not think that Irish Members had taken up any undue share of the time of the House. The noble Lord said that there were still 200 Votes of Supply to be taken. He (Mr. Scully) at the end of last Session gave notice of a Motion, which was placed on the records of Parliament, that all the Votes ought to be taken before the 1st of May, but he had not seen any attempt on the part of the Government to bring them forward. The noble Lord had, with his usual tact, selected the time for making the suggestions which had just fallen from him most admirably, seeing that while every word which he had uttered was sure to go forth to the public, there was not a single Member sitting on the front Opposition bench, and the only distinguished Member of the Opposition (Mr. Henley) present was actually walking out of the House. Indeed, the only undoubted supporters of the Conservative party upon whom the noble Lord on looking across the table could fix his gaze were the hon. and learned Member for Wallingford (Mr. Malins) and the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Ball), so that it might very fairly be said there lay before him a perfect vacuum. With such a prospect to encourage him the noble Lord was kind enough to concede to private Members the privilege of indulging themselves on Fridays, while the other days of the week he wished to absorb for Government business. As the Government did not support his Motion for inquiry into the evictions, the matter would have to be brought forward in another form. He had another very important notice to bring forward on going into Committee of Supply. It was to move for a Select Committee to inquire what was the best mode of securing authentic and accurate reports of the debates in the House. Nothing could be more ridiculous and absurd, for instance, than the reports in the morning papers of the debate on the Indian Bills last night. It was impossible to conceive anything more imperfect of contrary to what really occurred. That was clearly a very important subject, and he could not understand why the noble Viscount should wish to shirk a debate on it. In the absence of hon. Gentleman opposite he protested against the suggestion that Members should give up their independent Motions, and allow the Government to do what they pleased.


Sir, I hope the House will attend to the speech of my noble Friend, and not to that of the hon. Member who has just spoken. I cannot help being struck with the great change which has take place in the proceedings of this House, more especially in regard to Supply. It is, no doubt, the true constitutional doctrine that hon. Members have a right to discuss any matter of grievance, important questions of any internal or external policy, before going into Committee of Supply, but that principle has been employed in order to introduce abuses, which, I think, cannot be allowed to exist any longer. The very purpose of Supply is defeated by these interruptions. The hon. Member for Lambeth (Mr. Williams) has said very often and very truly that there is nothing more important in this House than the Supplies by which all our great establishments are maintained, and which are the cause of the burdens which the country has to bear; but, if these questions do not come on till half-past eleven or half-past twelve at night, it is quite impossible that they can be discussed. The hon. Member for Lambeth and others who take an interest in these matters are either obliged to make speeches in an impatient House, or to give way to a Vote against which they have many reasons to allege. This is, perhaps, the most important business which the House has to perform, and yet it is entirely set aside, not in order to consider some important grievance or grave question of policy, involving possibly the existence of a Government, but in order to discuss some question of detail which might be brought forward on a notice day, and which probably is hardly worth the attention of the House at all. I have a very strong impression on my mind that, although the Committee which sat early in the Session did not think it desirable to recommend the change, the time will come when that good practice will be extended to Supply which prevails with regard to Bills; that, after the House has once gone into Committee on a Bill, when the Order of the Day is read, you, Sir, should immediately leave the Chair on the question of Progress. If the House knew that at five or six o'clock the Committee of Supply would come on, and that certain items would be considered, hon. Members would be in their places prepared to discuss them. Some process of that kind must certainly be adopted if the House means to maintain its character and to resort to its old mode of proceeding. There are days for notices when private Members can bring forward their Motions. There is another point of material importance which deserves to be mentioned—I mean the introduction of Supply at an early period of the Session. There are certain forms and proceedings which take up about ten days at the beginning of the Session, and which, according to an old constitutional maxim, require to be gone through before the House can deal with the Estimates. I think, however, that on the second day of the Session, on the Report of the Address, the House might pass the Resolution "that a Supply be granted to Her Majesty," and that the Estimates might then be printed. The House having seen the Estimates would proceed to provide for them. I am persuaded that some thorough amendment of the present practice is required, not to introduce innovations, but to re-establish the old mode of proceeding.


said, he entirely concurred with the noble Lord at the head of the Government in lamenting the state of the public business during the present Session. The remedy he had to propose had, in the main, been anticipated by the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary—it was that immediately on the meeting of Parliament the Estimates should be laid on the table. If the House thought it desirable that the Estimates should be proceeded with earlier than usual, there would, he apprehended, be no difficulty in accommodating the constitutional forms to which the noble Lord had referred to so beneficial an arrangement. At present the first ten days or fortnight of the Session were always completely wasted, and the Army and Navy Estimates were not commenced till near Easter, when the renewal of the Mutiny Bill rendered it necessary that certain Votes should be passed; and, having got the large Votes, the Government allowed the consideration of the small to be set aside for other business. The result was that when the remaining Estimates were brought forward, there was no possibility of procuring the attendance of those Members who ought to be present when they were discussed. He had never heard any reason why the Estimates should not be presented on the meeting of Parliament. That would be certainly more convenient for the Government, as the attendance of Members would be comparatively small, and the Votes would be passed with less delay. It was said that much delay was caused by Motions upon going into Committee of Sup- ply. At the commencement of a Session hon. Members wishing to make Motions naturally expected that opportunities for making them would be afforded, but, as the Session advanced there was great difficulty in bringing on Motions upon the regular days, and thus Members were driven to the necessity of making them on going into Committee of Supply. Having regard to the desirableness of getting through the Estimates at an early period of the Session, and at the same time looking at the importance of allowing opportunities for a full discussion of them, and further considering that nothing tended so much to delay the general progress of business as the uncertainly which prevailed as to the precise time when particular business would be taken; upon all these grounds the question was well deserving of attention whether some arrangement should not be made for improving the mode of conducting business in that House. With respect to another part of what had fallen from the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary, he must say he should view with great jealousy any attempt to curtail those opportunities for discussion of which every Member had a right to avail himself. The time might come when some such step must be taken, but he should be adverse to adopting a new rule which might abridge the safeguards possessed by a minority against an overbearing majority of the House, unless the most absolute and imperative necessity could be shown for it.


thought the time had arrived when the House would be compelled to assent to a curtailment of what were called the privileges of the House, and to allow the allocation of one day for the purposes of Supply. He regretted to say that, judging from the experience he had had of the temper of the House, and the flood of talk with which they were deluged, he despaired that either of the recommendations of the noble Lords would have the effect of abolishing what had become an acknowledged nuisance. Those who, like himself, were constant in their attendance in the House felt as irksome, and, indeed, intolerable, the opportunity which the Motion for going into Supply afforded for the utterance of much that was neither useful nor creditable to that House. If it should happen that any event occurred which would render it necessary that the attention of Parliament should be immediately directed to the subject, there could be no difficulty in sus- pending the Standing Order, which appropriated a special day for the purposes of Supply.


said, that the noble Viscount at the head of the Government had complained, and very properly, that there was so much matter not immediately connected with the business of the House before it, that the effect was to retard its progress, and thereby to inflict injury on the public service. The hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Vincent Scully) had also complained that those (the Conservative) benches were generally nearly empty. If that complaint were true, it only proved that they, at all events, did not cause delay, and they stood completely exonerated from the complaint made by the noble Lord. The hon. Gentleman who had just sat down despaired of any remedy being found for the evil of which the House complained. Now, there were two very simple remedies which be applied. If the ordinary mediums of communication between that House and the public would occasionally give to the country verbatim reports of the speeches delivered, not polished up, without giving sense to that in which there was no meaning, without adapting to the rules of grammar all that was ungrammatical, they would put a damper upon those hon. Gentlemen who were notoriously guilty of occupying much time in an unprofitable manner. He would also suggest that any hon. Member speaking in a debate should be compelled to remain in the House until the debate was closed. The Conservative Members of that House had not been inattentive to public business, as the division lists would show. Upon the various measures connected with the Budget they had omitted no opportunity of discussing those important matters, but when great items of expenditure were settled by the decision of the House, they did not conceive it to be necessary for them to attend continuously to discuss details for which the Government were responsible. Indeed, it was impossible for them to do so when they were required to serve upon Committees, which, instead of affording—as was sometimes believed out of doors—large emoluments, only occupied their time and increased their labour.